Alternate paths: martial magic is a book aimed at making spell casters, particularly arcane spell casters more competent battlefield combatants. The book begins with a plethora of alternate rules to help GMs achieve this end. The first of which is the suggestion to do away with arcane spell failure chance entirely and follows up with a few suggestions on how to mitigate this advantage. The options presented are drastically different in terms of tactical effectiveness with one increasing the casting time for spells forcing you to throw away the AC bonus you get from your armor on each turn you cast a spell, which IMO should be all of them. My biggest issue with this is that this is presented as some sort of massive overwhelming advantage, but spell casters have always had means of thwarting attack rolls that were better than just having a high AC.
After that are rules for charging spells, taking more time to cast a spell to greater effect and supercharging spells for even greater effects beyond that. The book presents this as a dangerous gambit that gives foes a greater time to interrupt the caster. This doesn’t quite hold up in practice, as most of the charged casting times can still be completed on the casters turn and even the fastest supercharged casting times is a full 30 seconds. Making spell casting either too fast for that problem to come up or so slow as to be impractical in combat scenarios. Most of the actual benefits for doing this are pretty underwhelming, with one exception. The ability to apply a single +1 metamagic feat to a spell for free.
For spontaneous casters this is no big deal, for prepared casters spontaneous metamagic application is a huge game changer. Supercharging a spell in this manner allows you to add 1+1/2 your caster level in metamagic feats to the spell. That allows spell casters by way of feats like extend spell and bouncing spell to more than double their daily spell allotment. I don’t think this alternate rule is irremediably broken but one of the options is just so much better than the others that the rest come off as a waste of page space. I’m also assuming that you can’t just slap quicken spell on a supercharged spell to bypass all of the downsides. RAW, but definitely not RAI.
Then there’s a solid system for substituting the components of a spell with concentration checks. This is a neat way to get a newer player familiar with concentration checks in a low risk scenario.
This is followed by cosmic magic, a set of rules for a fourth type of magic more fundamental than the psychic, arcane, or divine magic. This is a neat, if somewhat cliché concept. I wish more page space was dedicated to this, as it’s a -1 to your caster level in exchange for some trivial benefits.
After that there are critical spell rules, the ability to have a 5% chance to increase a spells caster level by 2 in exchange there’s also a 5% chance for a spell to completely fizzle. Doesn’t really add much to the game.
Frankenspells, the ability to cast two spells at the same time to produce a greater effect. Most of these interactions are pretty well thought out save for how saving throws interact with each other. The caster picks which save from the spells they cast applies to the entire effect, a bit of ludonarrative dissonance as it’s more advantageous combine two spells with different saves in order to target a creatures bad saves, rather than because you care about that extra effect.
Then the book presents rules for gestalt play & magic knights. I don’t see any separate rules for magic knights but the gestalt rules are basically the same as the version that appears in unearthed arcana. Frustratingly, what’s there is rewritten to be more confusing and the section on how to incorporate prestige classes into gestalt characters is replaced with a paragraph that basically boils down to don’t.
There’s a bit on swapping spell lists between classes. It posits that as long as both classes have the same casting progression, swapping spell lists doesn’t cause too many problems. I disagree. While classes that aren’t defined by their casting ability like the ranger and the paladin can get away with that; Classes that have better progressions then that have some serious issues. A Magus with the Bard spell list is a thing of terror, and a cleric with the wizard spell list renders the wizard obsolete.
We get a section on how to mix metamagic feats and magic weapons. Casting spells as attacks of opportunity and ways to turn prepared spells into impromptu weapons, an attempt at balancing the physical ability scores as spell casting abilities. And suggestions to give everyone the magus’s spell combat ability.
The most elaborate alternate rule however is the mana system. This replaces the slightly counterintuitive vancian casting system with a more straightforward pool of mana points that are expended to cast spells, like in a video game. Spell casters have a pool of mana that grows as they level up, spells cost an amount of mana equal to their level to cast, and cantrips cost 1/3rd of a point. The system even acknowledges the problem with mana based systems, where spell casters can use resources normally reserved for low level spells on high level spells thus gaining the ability to cast them much more frequently.
Little red presents three solutions to this problem. The first is to give spell casters a sort of magic fatigue that keeps them from casting spells after casting too many spells. This magical exhaustion goes away after a minute and can be reduced if you take a move action so it doesn’t do the job of limiting a spell casters daily high level spell usage very much and really adds a little too much complexity back into what is being sold as a simple alterative to vancian magic.
The second solution involves increasing the mana cost of a spell so that higher level spells cost more mana, two different formulas are provided along with a reference table. The reference table is presented after the next solution and as a minor nitpick gets its own formula wrong in for a single cell in that table. This is the first of many questionable layout decisions that are common throughout the book.
The third solution presented is to increase the cost of casting a spell if other spells of the same level were cast previously. This is an irritating amount of book keeping and again I’m not sure why its bundled with a solution that pitches itself as being simple.
Ultimately a lot of these rules are just ok with a handful of bad options sprinkled throughout the section. There’s not a lot of effort being put forth here and what we get are 12 pages of rules that are on the level of a series house rule the GM whipped up in an hour. Of particular note is that there are no specific solutions presented for the two biggest problems that spell casters face in combat, lack of hit points and poor fortitude saves. The closest you get are second order solutions like making constitution your spell casting ability score and gestating as a class with a good fortitude save which requires some preexisting knowledge of these problems.
First up in the classes section of the book is the beast, a magically altered solder that, while lacking any spell casting ability is able to retain spells cast on themselves indefinitely. These spells can come from the wizard or cleric spell lists and never get higher than 6th level. I initially balked at having buffs from two of the largest spell lists in the game spontaneously and permanently become part of a character every few levels but there’s a fairly detailed section on talking to your GM about what spells to take and only one of the beast paths, which are akin to sorcerer bloodlines actually allows you to arbitrarily add spells to your character and it’s the one that saddles you with crippling mutations. The class also gains a resistance bonus on saves against spells and spell like abilities. This bonus is mostly eclipsed by a cloak of resistance, so this feels a bit superfluous.
At 4th level and every 4 levels thereafter the beast gains beast talents, which are rogue talent-esq psudo feats. There are 10 beast talents to choose from which range from useful abilities like gaining spell resistance or spell like abilities (presumably from the cleric or wizard lists) to things prone to weird rules interactions like learning metamagic feats and applying them to spells cast on you. Suddenly taking quicken spell from a feat to take at around 8th level to something you should take as soon as you are able.
The class ends with a list of alternate favored class bonuses, none of them are particularly out of left field but the elvish one seems significantly weaker than the rest of them, only being useful for a handful of spell effects at 20th level.
After that is the cannoneer, a siege magician who’s class features revolve around blowing people up with a big freakin’ cannon. They specialize in dealing damage over an area, rather than to any one target in particular. As they level up they gain shells, which are special effects they can apply to the attacks they make with their cannon, all of which are pretty neat. Unlike the beast class which presents its talents at the end of the class these are placed right in the middle, a baffling layout decision on little red’s part.
As the class progresses they gain the ability to create a magical energy field that renders them immune to negative effects of their cannon. Presumably this allows you to fire at foes directly in front of you. It also provides a constant 20% miss chance against ranged attacks. Later on they gain the ability to ignore the effects of the evasion ability and raise the minimum on the damage dice dealt by their arcane cannon. At 20th level they can maximize the damage dealt by their arcane cannon a few times per day, this would normally be fine but it comes off as a bit unimpressive considering they’re already treating any damage dice that are less than 4 as 4s at that point.
The class also has some alternate favored class bonuses, all of which are fine, but the table precedes a few of the class features for some reason. This class really could have benefited from some editing as are several instances of weird language and poor layout decisions that tripped me up when I read through the class for the first time.
Then there’s the curse-wielder a warrior who wields a cursed item a la Elric of Melnibone. While there are several different types of items you can use for this class feature and each has their own benefits and drawbacks, the basics of the class functions more or less the same way for each one. As you use your abilities you gain stress and if you gain too much of it you need to make a will save to retain control of your character. I personally despise class features like this as they create more work for the GM and allow players to stop paying attention to the game.
Every curse-wielder can use an ability called power surge to take stress to get a bonus on attack rolls for a round, and can spend a bit more to deal extra dice of damage as well. Later you can add debuffs to attacks that you use this ability on, provided you don’t affect the same target more than once per round.
In the beginning these effects are wildly inconsistent in terms of overall power ranging from flipping a targets gender to rendering them blind. At 9th level these options expand giving you a plethora of new options. These are a bit more consistent ranging from frightening foes to afflicting them with a disease. One of the options is the effect of a bestow curse spell, this is hands down the best of the effects giving you one of the most powerful debuffs in the game without any of its normal drawbacks on all of the attacks you make in an encounter at about the same time as a normal spellcaster can do it 3 times a day. At 15th level the list expands again, adding two options: petrifaction for a few rounds or a chance to drop anything you’re holding. That second one is worse than bestow curse, which has a chance to just take away all of your actions for a round.
That aside, every even level you get a bond evolution, which is a new power that your item manifests. Some of these are unique to certain types of items while others are generic. Armor bonds include things like damage and energy resistance, giving the armor magic armor abilities temporary, and completely negating the armor’s maximum dexterity bonus to AC. This would give you positively amazing AC but you need to be 8th level to take it, which makes it a bit hard to build around, unless you happen to be starting around that level. Weapons gain things like an extra attack, magic weapon special abilities, and the ability to hold the weapon in an extra-dimensional space. Wondrous cursed items grant several different utility powers and some summoning and buffing abilities.
The generic bond evolutions include things like shooting rays and cones of negative energy, the ability to willingly give up control of your character to gain a bonus on attack rolls, and the ability to change the damage type dealt by your power surge ability. Among those options is positive energy, which heals living creatures. Because there’s no limit to the amount of stress you can take, this class has the ability to heal an unlimited amount of damage.
After that we have the esper, a self styled psychic paladin that channels the force of the collective positive emotions of intelligent life. At first level they gain an aura of hope that suppresses fear effects within 30 feet, so long as the DC is less than 10+esper level+charisma modifier. This goes up way faster than the standard save formula, so its usually going to work unless you’re heavily outclassed. It also gives all creatures a bonus on saves against mind-effecting effects and forces barbarians who are raging to make a will save to keep raging, which just sounds frustrating to me.
You also gain the ability to draw power from nearby allies, giving you a bonus on attack and damage rolls as long as you have allies within 100 feet of you that aren’t suffering from negative emotions. As you level up you gain vibes, special powers you can get while you’re drawing power from your allies. These include things like healing, telepathy, and taking on negative mental effects that your allies would normally suffer from.
Some of these options are a little on the weak side, but not egregiously so.
You also gain 4 level spell casting, like a paladin. Also like a paladin your caster level is 3 lower than your class level. How 2009. The esper spell list strikes me as a little odd. While they have spells that work off of positive emotions like I’d expect of them such as charm person, build trust, and heroism. They also have a lot of spells that work off of negative emotions like cause fear, ego whip, and they know.
Also the favored class bonuses table on this class precedes some of the class features.
The next class in the book is the inquisitorial scholar, an alchemist/inquisitor hybrid that fills a similar niche to the slayer in as much as they use knowledge to fight their enemies. They gain the ability to make extracts like an alchemist; these are also used to fuel their class features.
They also gain a hunt class feature. Rather than provide some kind of fixed bonus against certain creature types hunts function as a sort of extraordinary version of the inquisitor’s judgment ability that only function against one type of creature at any given time. This is more specific than a single creature type, so if you fought say, a red and a green dragon you’d only get bonuses against one of them. Most of the actual hunt benefits are pretty solid. Of note is the subdual hunt which forces you to deal non-lethal damage but gives you a slayer level damage bump, and the elimination hunt which gives you full BAB during the hunt.
Also of note is the survive hunt which gives you a bonus to saving throws and AC but turns into a penalty when being attacked by non-hunted creatures. Rendering it a pretty weak option overall. Hunts are fueled by expending an extract of the current highest level they have available. This is a little weird narrative wise as you could use, say a 2nd level extract to activate a hunt but only if you don’t have any 3rd level extracts left.
They also gain the ability to give a creature vulnerability to either a common elemental damage like acid, cold, electricity, or fire or a type of damage thematically relevant to the targeted creature. Increasing all damage dealt to them by 50%. I find this odd because the inquisitorial scholar doesn’t have any class feature that allows them to exploit these vulnerabilities unless they happen to be thematically relevant and a more normal damage type that anyone could exploit.
Most of the rest of their class features are basically lifts from the alchemist or inquisitor. Of note is the ability to take alchemist discoveries this is mostly of note because the inquisitorial scholar can’t take any discoveries that modify the bomb or mutagen abilities. This eliminates the vast majority of the alchemist discoveries and leaves only the weird ones that make sense for the mad scientist thing the alchemist has going for it but are aggressively thematically incoherent with the inquisitorial scholar.
After that we have the Maghamir, a magus/caviler hybrid class whose name loosely translates to adventurer. At 1st level they gain a version of the challenge ability that works on both spells and melee attacks and a flying carpet mount. This has the unfortunate effect of making them more or less immune to melee attacks in most situations where they can use their mount. They don’t gain a version of spell combat, they do, however gain a version of spell combat that only works on a charge.
So while they’re nowhere near the damage machine that is the magus they have quite a bit of utility built into the rest of the class. They get Treasures in lieu of magus arcane which range pretty wildly in utility from gaining a +4 enhancement bonus on any check where physical attraction is a factor to gaining a magus arcana, note that because you have no arcane pool your options are severely limited. Of special note is the “been there stole that” treasure, which allows you to as a standard action roll 3 times on the magic item table from the core rulebook and gain one of the items. This both takes a standard action, keeping you from using the item that you just produced on the same turn you produced it and not guaranteeing anything useful. I find this strange because there’s a thematically similar ability in the pathfinder chronicler, a prestige class in the back of the core rulebook that doesn’t have either of these problems.
The maghamir also is a member of a fleet, an organization with goals much like a caviler’s order. Thematically they’re all pretty similar to existing cavalier orders, but there’s about 30 of those so avoiding that would have been a lot of effort for no real benefit. Each fleet ether gives you class skills or gives you bonuses to skills you already had. Most of them also let you swap out your mount for other things, ranging from a unicorn to the ability to turn into a lightning bolt. The abilities you gain out of them are all pretty well balanced, if oddly formatted. The favored class bonus table is ahead of some of the class features on this class as well. This just seems like something that could have been avoided pretty easily.
Then there’s the Sagebeast a spellcaster with a monster sealed within them. While that might sound a lot like a certain anime that’s been going on for the last ten years some effort has been expended to differentiate it from that. However it’s mostly to the classes’ detriment. The monsters you have to pick from are all really boring things like Orcs and Yeti. Like the class spends multiple paragraphs talking about how sagebeasts live lonely lives of seclusion, how the sagebeast must master themselves before they can master their powers, and that how they’re often created to protect communities but all of the options you get to reflect that are chump monsters.
Mechanically the sage beast is a 6 level spell caster with ½ BAB who casts wizard spells. When they run out of spells (or when they use certain class features) they enter a monster form that improves their BAB to full and grants them a few other benefit s based on monster within them. They have consumptions; special ablates that allow them to expend spell slots for various benefits most of them are fine balance wise, one of them allows the sage beast to grow multiple size categories, which can represent a pretty significant bump in damage the other problematic one is nightmare aura, which allows you to spend an arbitrary amount of spell slots to create a fear aura with a DC equal to 10+1/2 your level+ the level of spells you sacrificed. This allows a sage beast to create very high DC aura that causes creatures to become panicked on a failed save. That forces you drop everything you’re holding and run away taking apart an encounter with a swift action isn’t particularly cool in my book.
Just re-fluff a bloodrager, this isn’t worth it.
Finally there’s the Shujaa, which is what happens when you take a sorcerer and perform the magical equivalent of foot-binding on them. The opening paragraph makes a point of how this is almost exclusively forced upon young children. Ironically their name loosely translates to “hero”. Overall this is a bit more tragedy porn than I’m comfortable with, which is a shame because this is a pretty well thought out class otherwise. The process a shujaa undergoes gives them powerful abjuration magic. They gain an abjuration spell at each level that they can cast at-will. The level of spell you can take with this ability never gets very high, capping out at 4th level spells by 18th level. There are still some nasty spells at these levels that get much nastier in the hands of a shujaa (looking at you stunning barrier), but this class feature is largely self contained. Their other class feature is an aura of magical energy that grants them a shield bonus equal to their charisma modifier + 1/4th their level. Combined with heavy or even medium armor that’s some pretty high AC but they gain their primary means of fueling their class features when they take damage, so it balances it out a bit.
As you level up you gain the ability to smack people with your barrier and the ability to distribute the shield bonus from your barrier to your allies. You also gain “barrier functions” as you level up, gaining new ways to manipulate your barrier. These range from making your barrier air tight, gaining energy resistance, to bull rushing creatures with it. All of these are pretty well balanced against each other.
My only (non-subjective) complaint with the class is that I’d have liked to see a bit more of the classes Aramaic roots reflected in the classes mechanics. As it stands you could just swap the classes name out with anything and it would still be coherent.
The book closes out with a selection of new feats. Most of these are class support feats, letting members of classes in the book gain more barrier functions, bond evolutions, and the like. There’s also salvo casting which lets wizards cast two low level spells with the same action, I’m not quite sure why that’s limited to the wizard. There are a few general feats, like the ability to shove someone who’s about to have a spell cast on them away and gain that spell’s benefits and the ability to make items that are cursed, not to be confused with the cursed items in the pathfinder rulebook.
Also of note is the warrior-wizard style this is a drastically underpowered feat chain that masquerades as a good option. It starts off giving spell casters full BAB when they make a full attack action with melee weapons, then allows you to use it when you only make one attack, and then finally allows you to use your caster level as your fighter level for qualifying for feats. This is a lot of feats for something that’s mutually exclusive with how you ordinarily approach combat as a spell caster and doesn’t give you any means to bridge the two. The book even notes that this style is far more powerful in the hands of a spell caster that can already bridge the two like a bard or a magus.
There are also four new metamagic feats, one lets you take line and ray spells and bend their line of effect as part of casting them and one that lets some (the ones with mass in their name) buff spells spread to adjacent allies. These are both fairly well balanced; the one that lets you spread buff spells in a little niche and its level adjustment is a bit on the high side. The other two don’t really feel like metamagic feats. One only effects the dispel magic and antimagic field spells while the other expands the functionally of the elemental spell metamagic feat.
Ordinarily I’d be a bit harsher on improved elemental spell as it shaves two feats off of a build but the builds that used the elemental spell metamagic never particularly cared about getting all four so it’s not that big of an issue.
Ultimately, I don’t think that alt paths: martial magic does what it sets out to do, it lacks the defensive options to let spell caster keep up with the more physically oriented classes while giving them tempting offensive options that allows them to think they can. I can’t think of a better recipe for salt and dead characters.
[2 of 5 Stars!]