Friday, December 3, 2010

Expanded Class Feature 11: Unbound Witch

Class: Unbound Witch
Source: Secrets of Pact Magic

How it Works:
I’ve worked up an all-purpose ‘How it Works’ article for pact-making classes as a whole, which can be found here.

It’s time for more pimping of Secrets of Pact Magic, with my favorite class from the entire set, the Unbound Witch.

If you don’t have the book, you can still follow along; the Unbound Witch is part of the free sample available here.

Fluffy Bits:
You know that magic thing? Don’t you hate dealing with that whole, “knowing what the Hell you’re doing,” thing? Wouldn’t it be a lot better if you just let the power consume you and became a horrific freak of nature?

Yeah, that’s this class. An Unbound Witch is a binder who throws caution to the wind and fully embraces the spirits they call upon. While other binders negotiate terms and try to stay in control, try not to lose themselves, the Unbound Witch skips straight to, “Gimme your power. More. More.”

As you level up, you can also cherry pick a few individual abilities off of specific spirits, gaining them permanently. Each time this happens, the powers you’ve been tapping cause a mutation of some sort, from simple things like angel tears or a third eye to the more extreme like metallic skin or quills sprouting out of you. By twentieth level, these mutations can turn an ordinary human into some hideous thing build like a gorilla with flesh made of toxic algae and rock, with fangs and wings and a barbed tail and hair made of snakes and compound eyes, that has the power to shoot laser beams and toss around curses and come back from the dead when killed- twice, no less- and all this bizarre stuff, and that’s before actually binding anything. Those are inherent powers. Of course, you don’t have to go that far out in picking mutations, but eventually it’ll get hard to hide, and can become a table issue in some parties. But that’s not the party you bring the, “I turn into a horrific [for varying definitions of horrific] abomination against God and nature,” class to.

This class is also great for monsters, since piling “horrific freak” on top of an already-horrific freak is always a good thing, and the class just generally meshes well with monsters, particularly since it doesn’t really rely on any mental stats.

Crunchy Bits:
First, the skeleton. Strong fortitude and will, low BAB, d6 hit die, and 4+ skill points per level from a rather eclectic list. Light armor, simple weapons. This class acts more as a caster.

Moving on to secondary abilities, at level one, you get Elusive Nothing. A number of times per day equal to your caster level, you can spend an immediate action to add your wisdom modifier (minimum +1)to AC against a single attack.

Also at level one, you get Dark Nature. -4 Diplomacy and Handle Animal, +2 Intimidate and Knowledge (Dungeoneering). Starting at level two, the Diplomacy penalty doesn’t apply to monsters.

And, starting at level five, you get Volatile Mind. Your mind is such that anyone trying to target you with a mind-affecting spell/ability, they need to make a will save (with a wisdom-based DC) or become shaken and the spell fails. This feature advances to fear, panic, and even unconsciousness. You might remember a similar ability from the Wilder, which would drain power points when you’re targeted by a telepathy power. This version is more sensible, though since wisdom’s a secondary stat, the DC will be low, and most creatures targeting you with mind effects probably has a strong will save, so it’s not gonna see use all that often.

And at level 20, you become a monstrous humanoid and gain darkvision. Woo.

Getting into the main features, Unbound Witches get full binding at the slowest progression, gaining access to 9th-level spirits at level 20 (making them your real capstone). Your binding stat is… nothing. This is one of the major aspects of the Unbound Witch; you don’t make binding checks. You automatically fail them every single time, no matter what, meaning you’re always subject to physical signs and personality shifts. However, you automatically gain spirits’ capstone abilities and never have to worry about alignment shifts. Save DCs are still based on constitution.

Next, you also gain Acquire Ability starting at level 2, the most definitive ability of the Unbound Witch. As you level up, you can pick out individual abilities from spirits you’re capable of binding to gain permanently. You gain eight of these by level twenty. This includes capstone abilities. For example, at level two, you can permanently gain Marat’s slam attack without the need to ever actually bind Marat again. You can swap out one ability at 10th- and 20th-level.

For every ability you gain, you also gain a monstrous characteristic such as a tail, goat legs, insect eyes, a leathery hide, and so on. Aside from looking freaky, these come with various benefits. Clawed Hands grant you natural claw attacks, insect eyes grant you 15’ darkvision, webbed hands grant you +3 to swim checks, and so on. Paired with spirits’ physical signs, this can turn you into a real freak.

Last but certainly not least, you get Terror Surge. This is ripped straight from the Wilder’s Wild Surge, except it boosts save DCs for your spirit abilities. This advances from a +1 bonus at level 1 to a +6 bonus at level 19. That’s a lot. Basically, it means Unbound Witches are meant to be primarily a save-or-die class.

Like Wild Surge, there’s a downside. Spirit Enervation. For every point by which you boost a power’s save DC, you have a 5% chance of being dazed for a round, then you lose the power you boosted for another 1d4 rounds. Again, similar to the Wilder, but this time, it’s considerably less debilitating. Though considering a lot of powers have a multi-round round recharge time to begin with, you’ll have to hammer out with your DM whether that’s concurrent or consecutive.

Starting with stats. With low BAB, you’re not likely to ever be much good in melee, so you can dump strength. You don’t really get any benefit from charisma or intelligence, so you can dump those if you want. You have a couple class features that are keyed off of wisdom, but nothing major. You can dump wisdom if you want. No one wants a penalty to dexterity, but even then, you could get away with dumping dexterity. Constitution is the one all-important stat, primarily for save DCs (though the hit points are always nice).

That said, dexterity is your second most important stat. When your bread and butter is save-or-die, initiative is vital; you want to disable the enemy as soon as possible. Improved Initiative? Good idea. Other stats are something you toss in to taste.

Ignore Binding Requirements is virtually requisite for this class, since a failed binding check if you don’t meet requirements means you fail to bind the spirit at all.

Regarding your potentially horrific appearance, there are generally three ways you can go. First, you can try to hide it. You can take Suppress Physical Sign and take monstrous characteristics that are easier to hide, like gills and angel tears. Unfortunately, Unbound Witches are specifically banned from taking Suppress Personality Shift, so you’ll always have to deal with that. Towards this end, there is a focal device variant class feature that can avoid both the physical sign and the personality shift, but I find that particular variant dubious in terms of balance and inconsistent with anything I’d go for with an Unbound Witch. Second, you can embrace your monstrous nature. Who cares if your aasimar ends up a horned lizard person who sheds lethal poison and whose hair is snakes that are on fire while suffering an urge to eat babies? Just… mind how it affects the rest of the group when you start feeding the princess’ left arm to your hairdo. Third, just take the mutations that turn you into a cute cat girl, like paws and a tail.

As I’ve said multiple times, your bread and butter is the save-or-die (or save-or-lose, or save-or-suck, or save-or-amuse-me, or whatever). As the book points out, if you just start off with 15 Con and boost that at every opportunity for 20 Con at level 20, when you throw in Terror Surge, you’re throwing around DC31 abilities. When you start out with much higher constitution, boost it with a magic item, and take feats to raise it even higher, you could easily be talking something in the forties, which is actually viable at high levels. Expect a large chunk of your feats to go into boosting those DCs; Secrets of Pact Magic introduces a number of save boosters. Volcanic Burst, Terror Surge Overchannel, Words of Power. Also, Ability Focus in your favorite ability can be worth it. When you add all these up, it comes out to a lot of feats, which will likely be in high demand for your entire career.

As a PC, selecting your acquired abilities is perhaps the most difficult and important choice you face. You only gain eight of them (nine with a feat), and they’re almost completely cast in stone once you pick them; you only get two chances to swap ‘em out. Once at level ten, once at level twenty. These abilities are your bread and butter, so they have to be powers you can use a lot, that are always useful in any situation, and that can last your entire career without ever becoming obsolete. Like I said. Difficult.

First off, save-or effects are your bread and butter, since you can boost your save DCs high enough for them to always remain useful. It’s good to have a debilitating save-or effect that goes after both will and fortitude. We’re talking things like sleep and paralysis, that can take someone out of a fight in one go, though the better abilities tend to be higher-level. Due to immunities, you may want a bit of redundancy there, but once you have that covered, you have your main combat abilities covered and you can focus more on useful and flexible effects. Hexus’ curse ability allows you to throw around Bestow Curse effects, which are very flexible debuffs (and if you impose a -6 intelligence curse on that 2-int twelve-headed hydra, it’s comatose), Janya Warlock’s capstone is a daily use of Limited Wish, which is pretty much the ability to solve any problem once per day if you’re sufficiently familiar with spells, Goliath’s capstone is a rare reflex save-or-lose that can bind enemies in chains with an extremely high DC to escape via Escape Artist, The Crow has Shadow Conjuration, which can emulate a ton of useful effects, and Son of Dobb’s capstone can bring you back from the dead without penalty once per day (great for villains). Those are just some of my favorites to get you thinking about the possibilities, but go forth and search, yourself.

Also, Anima Binder can be an extremely useful feat, since it lets you draw granted abilities from anima spirits, who sometimes have very good low-level abilities (like the ability to get Wild Shape at level two and qualify for Master of Many Forms at level three). This And No Other’s Restraining Gaze is almost Hold Monster available from the word go, and makes for a great go-to will-based disabler. On the other hand, others scale badly, being keyed directly off of spirit level, so proceed with caution.

Unfortunately, while you can get some really cool melee abilities and loads of natural attacks, that low BAB really cramps the melee witch’s options outside of gestalt.

Though the greatest use for an Unbound Witch is as an NPC, and especially as a boss. Remember everything I said about making sure your chosen abilities are both flexible and have the longevity to age well, how that’s what makes choosing your granted abilities so hard? Yeah, forget that. NPCs are only liable to be around for one fight anyways, and even that’s only going to last a few rounds, so you can afford to make an NPC gimmicky, mechanically one-dimensional, and devoid of any clear advancement. You can build an NPC Unbound Witch entirely around a single ability and have it work well enough to get through an encounter.

Unlike other magic-users, a high-level Unbound Witch is still very easy to put together. For a level 20 witch, you’re still talking eight abilities and one bound spirit. As a boss, their emphasis on constitution gives them enough hit points that they won’t go down right away (particularly if you toss in some defensive abilities), they have strong fortitude and will saves (plus an extra line of defense against mind-affecting abilities in Volatile Mind), which are the saves most likely to cripple a boss in one shot, and they can service a very broad array of character types and present a broad array of challenges. And it’s more likely to be a good thing if the bad guy’s the one with fangs and claws and baby-eating hair. All around, I’d far sooner suggest them as NPCs than PCs.

Great flexibility in what you can build
Obscene save DCs
Single stat dependence
That stat is the best possible stat
Surprisingly good skills
Awesomene NPCs

Very limited flexibility once you set your granted abilities
Low BAB limits you
Feat intensive
You’re liable to end up a hideous freak of nature

Remaining classes: Ardent, Artificer, Crusader, Divine Mind, Dread Necromancer, Empyrean Monk, Erudite, Exorcist, Incarnate, Lurk, Muse, Occult Priest, Pact Warrior, Psychic Rogue, Psychic Warrior, Ravaged Soul, Rookblade, Soulborn, Swordsage, Soul Weaver, Spirit Binder, Templar, Totemist, Warbinder.

Next Time: Soulborn

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Expanded Class Feature 10: Warblade

Class: Warblade
Source: Tome of Battle

How it Works:
I’ve worked up an all-purpose ‘How it Works’ article for pact-making classes as a whole, which can be found here.

Yes, this took a long time. I’ve lost my primary source of readership, which kinda killed my mojo. I’m not sure about the future of this blog, but we’ll see. I’m still shooting for biweekly updates.

Anyways, this is the first class I’m tackling from the greatest 3.5 supplement WotC’s ever put out, though quite frankly, with the nine schools and the How it Works sections already covered, the majority of the class is already covered.

This one's a part of the Tome of Battle free sample, by the way, so if you don't have the book, you can follow along here.

Fluffy Bits:

That’s all you need. This is the definitive nonmagical warrior class, one of the game’s very few true nonmagical classes, and one of its even fewer good ones. It can fit most traditional warrior archetypes from the savage berserker to the stalwart commander, though the finesse warrior has little less trouble than it always has.

Crunchy Bits:
I’ve already done write-ups on the nine schools of maneuvers, available here. Warblades get Diamond Mind, Iron Heart, Stone Dragon, Tiger Claw, and White Raven. That is to say sword smart, sword good, hit hard, be angry, and lead good.

Now, then. Skeleton. Strong BAB and fortitude, d12 hit die, martial melee weapons, medium armor, 4+ skill points from a so-so list, though it does include Tumble, Diplomacy, and Knowledge (History), which are beyond most melee classes. Unsurprisingly, this is a warrior’s skeleton. The Barbarian skeleton, in fact, save for skills.

Moving on to the general class features, as you level up, you add your intelligence modifier to various things. Reflex saves, confirming critical hits, damage against flat-footed enemies, defense against some of the standard martial tricks (trip, disarm, et cetera) and eventually damage on attacks of opportunity. Odds are intelligence is a tertiary stat, so these bonuses aren’t likely to be very big, but they’re still nice to have. Those start at level one and roll in over the course of the first fifteen levels.

Also at first level, you get what could be the most almost-interesting-but-ultimately-meh class feature ever. Weapon Aptitude. You can spend an hour to shift the designated weapon for any feat you possess (like Weapon Focus). And… all that really means is that random treasure is less problematic, since instead of taking the magic halberd to the city to sell as a down payment on a magic greatsword, you can train with the halberd to move your greatsword feats over. Ultimately, not a big deal, particularly since most feats it could apply to (again like weapon focus) are pretty crappy to begin with. The other half of this class feature is that you can qualify for Fighter-specific feats as a Fighter two levels lower than your Warblade level, but again, aren’t a whole lot of useful Fighter feats.

Other than that, you gain Uncanny Dodge in a timely manner and get a few bonus feats from a small but decent list.

Then, at level twenty, you get your capstone. Stance Mastery lets you assume two stances at once. A nice capstone.

Then, you have your maneuvers. You go from three maneuvers known and three maneuvers readied up to thirteen known and seven readied. You also go from one to four stances known. This is the least of all initiators, just slightly less than the Crusader. You’re liable to find the supply rather tight, so choose carefully. With five schools available, you get a lot of good maneuvers to choose from, so it may help to focus things a bit.

Your refresh method is also possibly the best of all ToB classes. If you need to refresh your maneuvers, make a swift action after standard action or full attack, which can still inflict a nice bit of pain between maneuvers. Alternately, you can use a standard action for some sort of flourish if there’s no one within reach.

How to use the Warblade is a big question. However, in general, it lends itself most to offense, with a side of support through White Raven. On that note, consider how many allies you have to support in the first place before investing heavily in White Raven; if you’re going to be alone or close to it on the front line, then many of its maneuvers could well be useless.

Ultimately, odds are your job is going to be to deliver the mail in the form of hit point damage. Your maneuvers should generally be geared towards killing things and any defenses only serve to keep you functional long enough to kill more things. Moment of Perfect Mind is probably wise; a dominated Warblade can be terrifying.

To that end, Tiger Claw, Diamond Mind, and Stone Dragon are good at hitting hard. Diamond Mind has some of the best defenses, but Iron Heart has its own powerful defenses as well. Iron Heart serves well as your unique school, with nice accuracy boosts and mob-clearing maneuvers that the other initiators just don't get.

Stats are rather self-evident; strength and constitution are primary stats, while dexterity and intelligence are secondary. Unfortunately, 3.5 hates finesse warriors, so unless you manage to get Shadow Blade working for you (most likely through a dip in Swordsage), dexterity will probably be a poor choice for primary stat.

Ultimately, there’s not a whole lot to say here. Tome of Battle adds a lot, but the procedure is still similar; make a face-breaker, find a face, and break it. The face-breaking process has just been made more interesting.

Great skeleton
Good school access
Great recharge method

Fewest maneuvers known
Purely melee

Remaining classes: Ardent, Artificer, Crusader, Divine Mind, Dread Necromancer, Empyrean Monk, Erudite, Exorcist, Incarnate, Lurk, Muse, Occult Priest, Pact Warrior, Psychic Rogue, Psychic Warrior, Ravaged Soul, Rookblade, Soulborn, Swordsage, Soul Weaver, Spirit Binder, Templar, Totemist, Unbound Witch, Warbinder.

Next Time: Unbound Witch

How it Works: Tome of Battle

This is the unified “How it Works” section for all the Tome of Battle classes. That’s the Crusader, the Swordsage, and the Warblade.

Tome of Battle is, far and away, the best book WotC has ever released for 3.5, and the one that finally resolves some of the crushing legacy issues that have been haunting melee classes since the beginning, when Fighter was a punishment class for people who didn’t roll good enough stats to be anything else and the wargaming days when warriors were mooks only valuable en masse while casters were leader units with amazing powers.

ToB is, in simplest terms, a book of martial arts. Actual, involved combat techniques that advance with level rather than the same homogenized, “attack, full attack, charge, trip, grapple,” that every melee’r from the kobold mook to the 20th-level Barbarian uses with minimal variation at ridiculous cost.

The linear warrior, quadratic wizard issue- in which a warrior class’s power tends to rise at a constant rate, while a mage’s power increases at an increasing rate- is long established. This is a major problem, because it’s the very definition of unbalanced, other than in a narrow range where the two are comparable in power. Outside of that range, the game breaks; one is overpowered, the other under. In this case, the two are more of less balanced around levels 1-6 and then mages explode.

What’s more, the defined power scale that PCs are supposed to follow is exponential, not linear; characters are expected to double in power every two levels. If you’re expected to be able to take on a T-Rex (a CR8 encounter) at level 8, then you’re expected to be able to take on two T-Rexes (a CR10 encounter) at level 10. A traditional warrior’s linear progression just can’t keep up without really twinking out on an ubercharger or some such. They carry less and less of their share until they may as well not be there.

Tome of Battle comes to this situation and cuts the Gordian knot. It uses mechanics known to keep pace with the power scale- the spellcasting model- and revises them to represent martial combat techniques, actually adding nuance to melee combat beyond, “Find the right place to stand and then spam the one trick I’ve kitted myself out to actually be good at until the fight ends and repeat the process for the next 259 fights until we hit level 20.”

The crux of this system is maneuvers and stances, which have a corresponding level (comparable to spell level) and discipline (comparable to spell school). Just replace “shoot laser beams” with “roundhouse kick” and give the kick appropriate effects, and you’re half-way there.

Stances are exactly what it says on the tin. You take a fighting stance and get some manner of benefit for it. In practice, these are like ongoing buffs that you can switch between as a swift action. Some are fairly simple, like +1d6 melee damage paired with -2 AC or +2 to allies’ will saves. Some are more interesting, like having 5’ steps provoke AoOs or gaining a stacking +1 to hit and damage with each critical hit. Stances tend to be somewhat secondary, as there aren’t a whole lot of them, and even the Swordsage, the class that gets the most maneuvers and stances, only gets six of them by level twenty.

The real bread and butter are the maneuvers, which are various martial techniques. These are split up three ways; boosts, counters, and strikes. Boosts are generally swift actions, and they’re little perks, usually buffs. For example, with Lion’s Roar, after defeating a foe, you can spend a swift action to boost your allies’ morale and grant them +5 damage for the round. Counters are immediate actions that can be used to alter the flow of battle even when it’s not your turn. Shield Block, for example, can be used in response to an enemy attack to grant your shield bonus to an adjacent enemy, protecting them. Then, there are strikes, the most important of the three. These are attacks with some sort of special effect. It may be an attack with a large attack bonus but a penalty to defense, or an attack that smashes through DR, or an attack that strikes multiple targets, or an attack that denies the target attacks of opportunity for a round, or an attack that grants allies a bonus to hit the target for a round, or an attack that grants allies attacks of opportunity against the target, or any number of effects. These are usually a standard action, though some are full-round actions.

These maneuvers are usable at will, with a caveat. You can’t just spam the same maneuver over and over again like a traditional melee type spams their full attack. If you picture a big action scene, maneuvers are the flashy action moves, like the drop kick. Once you do a drop kick, you’re not just gonna do another drop kick and another drop kick; you’re in no position to do so. Thus, after using a maneuver, you have to refresh it somehow to do it again. How that refresh works varies by class.

One important thing to understand is, maneuvers and stances aren’t nearly as powerful as spellcasting. We’re not talking about full casters with warrior skeletons. In fact, in terms of raw power, maneuvers are generally less powerful than the traditional full attack. By and large, they build power outward rather than upward, broadening the melee classes’ horizons while staying true to what it means to be a warrior, particularly in the context of a fantasy world.

More importantly, it breaks the mold of, “Get into position and spam full attacks until something dies,” for every fight forever. Rather, it mixes things up, introduces new effects, forces diversity. Because most maneuvers are standard actions, you’re free to move around without worrying about losing the full attack. Instead of repeating minor variations of the exact same thing, characters gain new techniques every level.

And it adds more desperately needed zots. Consider a single-classed Barbarian. Let’s say this Barbarian is going the path of a front-line two-hander. There’s not a whole lot of differentiation between this Barbarian and any other Barbarian. Things like starting with 16 strength instead of 18 or 20 don’t particularly affect how you operate. Whether you’re a dwarf or an orc, you’re still standing there, raging and full attacking, just with different to-hit values and hit point totals. Skills are rather tertiary. Really, all you have to differentiate yourself from every other Barbarian in the world and do anything different are 1-7 feats, depending on level, many of which will be identical (Extra Rage, Power Attack). That’s it. And if you want to do something other than stand there raging and full attacking, that’s liable to cost several feats. If you want to Spring Attack, that’s three feats. If you want Whirlwind Attack, you’re giving up most of your feats just to eventually do that, and it doesn’t even kick in until level twelve or so. There’s a severe lack of mechanical diversity.

Compare that to, say, a Sorcerer. You can put three enchantment-specialized halfling Sorcerers side by side and they can still function very differently by virtue of their other, fully-functional spells, as well as slightly differing selections within the enchantment school. Deep Slumber and Confusion are very different spells, and if one Sorcerer takes some summoning spells, those spells are not diminished for the effort.

Similarly, Tome of Battle’s maneuver system lets melee characters use diverse and interesting effects by default, with meaningful diversity from level one without requiring six to twelve levels’ worth of feats to get there.

And then, we get to multiclassing. The highest level of maneuver you can use is based on your initiator level. Unlike with casters, this is your initiating level (say, Warblade) plus half of any other levels you may have. Maneuvers known still key off of class level exclusively, but you have a 4th-level Fighter who then takes one level of Warblade, you can learn second-level maneuvers. This makes a structure where you can go all the way to level 20 as a single-classed initiator or multiclass extensively, and either way, you’re not shooting yourself in the foot. This is as opposed to most traditional classes where full casters pretty much never multiclass at all, except for full-casting PrCs, because almost nothing is ever worth losing caster levels over and you’d be shooting yourself in the foot for the effort, while melee classes tend to multiclass extensively because most of them have too many dead or useless levels past the lower levels to justify taking them to level 20 or even level 5. This model could have been a good addition to a better-designed spellcasting system.

This leads into one of the big objections to Tome of Battle classes, in that they replace normal melee classes. Regarding replacement, this both is and is not true for one simple reason. Most conventional melee classes have so few class features that they’re forced to multiclass extensively. Not doing so is often as suicidal as a mage multiclassing extensively at the loss of caster levels. Many conventional melee types take as few levels in base classes as possible, instead escaping to a prestige class that gets actual class features as soon as possible. The last two thirds of most melee classes are already obsolete. Tome of Battle doesn’t change this. In fact, due to the way multiclassing works with Tome of Battle, it can even make more levels in the old melee classes worthwhile.

My biggest problem with Tome of Battle, however, is a lack of material. It gives melee classes all these zots to spend, but there’s not a whole lot to spend them on to the point where a lot of stuff begins to overlap. The PHB has over a hundred pages of wall-to-wall spells. The Expanded Psionics Handbook has about eighty pages, and it’s a bit light. Tome of Battle has less than fifty pages of maneuvers. It could do well with an entire additional supplement, or even the kind of treatment Pact Magic got in Secrets of Pact Magic. It’s really a shame Tome of Battle was just a 150-page lightweight.

The Nine Swords

Tome of Battle: The Book of Nine Swords has, unsurprisingly, nine schools of swordplay. These are shared among the three classes, so I’m giving each school a quick rundown here so that I can just reference back here for the disciplines themselves.

The nine schools are Desert Wind, Devoted Spirit, Diamond Mind, Iron Heart, Setting Sun, Shadow Hand, Stone Dragon, Tiger Claw, White Raven. Or as I tend to call them, fire sword, holy sword, sword smart, sword good, judo, shadow sword, hit hard, be angry, and lead good.

Every school has an associated skill which varies in importance from school to school, a list of associated weapons which are more an expression of the school’s aesthetic than they are actually important- you can use Iron Heart maneuvers and stances even if you’re not using an Iron Heart weapon- but they’re relevant for some feats and abilities, and they’re all only available to certain classes, so I’ll lead with that information. Also, since every school has one (and only one) ninth-level maneuver, I’ll talk about that for each school since… well, there’s only one per school.

Now, taking them from the beginning.

Desert Wind: Kill ‘em with fire.
Scimitar, light mace, light pick, falchion, spear
This is one of the three Swordsage exclusive schools and one of the three supernatural schools. It focuses mainly on enhancing your combat abilities with supernatural fire, and is considered the weakest school for one simple reason; everything and its mother is either highly resistant to or outright immune to fire. It’s the most commonly resisted energy type in the game. That doesn’t mean it’s useless, of course. A number of the fire-based maneuvers are quite useful for that extra bit of damage. It’s just not wise to invest too heavily into it.

The ultimate technique for Desert Wind is the Inferno Blast. It deals a flat 100 fire damage in a 60’ burst centered around you, reflex for half. The save DC is wisdom-based. This is an unimpressive capstone maneuver, and highlights a lot of what’s wrong with Desert Wind. Martial adepts really can’t afford to ramp up their save DCs, especially not wisdom-based ones, so everything and its mother is will make that save, and by the time you finally get it, not only is the damage unimpressive (if you’re a dedicated artillery mage and can’t deal at least a hundred damage a shot in an area, you’re doing something wrong), but anyone and everyone who wants immunity to fire can get it pretty easily. Also, it has nothing to do with martial ability, which at least most of the school is better at, with things like the ability to charge at someone and stab them while on fire.

Desert Wind does have some cool stances. Holocaust Cloak inflicts five points of fire damage on anyone who hits you with a melee attack, for example. However, for reasons I’ll get into when I get to Shadow Hand, most Swordsages will probably never use Desert Wind stances in a fight. Which is a bit sad.

As a houserule, I’d suggest allowing the energy type for this school to change to suit the character. Maybe let it deal cold damage or electric damage, or perhaps slashing damage for a character whose swordplay causes ye olde razor wind.

Devoted Spirit: Sword of the God(ess[es])(s)
Falchion, greatclub, longsword, maul
This is the sole Crusader-exclusive school, and it’s what really defines the class. This is one of the three supernatural disciplines, and incorporates a great deal of divine power. Stances and maneuvers from this school tend to revolve around healing, protecting allies, and smiting heathens (though mostly the first two). This school has two first-level stances; one heals two hit points to yourself or an ally any time you strike an enemy, and the other imposes a -4 penalty to hit on any opponent you threaten who tries to attack one of your allies (but not foes attacking you). At the next maneuver level, you can get shield block, which is an immediate action to grant an adjacent ally your shield bonus plus four to AC for a single attack, protecting them, which actually brings up an odd point. Devoted Spirit is a more defensive style, and appears to have sword-and-board very much in mind, but all but one of its favored weapons are two-handed. Granted, most Crusaders would probably just use the longsword anyways, but it’s still odd. I’d probably be open to houseruling in some additional weapons if it ever became relevant, like a warhammer or waraxe for a dwarven crusader.

And for the record, the healing maneuvers/stances only apply when you’re actually fighting an active threat, so you can’t just spam them against a tree to heal up to full after every fight. While they can significantly add to your longevity, none of the healing stances/maneuvers really heal enough to outpace the damage you and your party are liable to take in a serious encounter.

The ultimate technique for Devoted Spirit is the Strike of Righteous Vitality, and it’s probably one of the more useful ultimate attacks. It’s a single standard action attack and if it hits, you gain the benefits of a heal spell for either yourself or a nearby ally. At the level you get it, it’s not about to outpace damage, but it is a lot of healing. Though at that point, a single standard action attack is usually a joke.

Diamond Mind: The Disciplined Discipline
Rapier, shortspear, katana, trident
Swordsage, Warblade
Diamond Mind is the first school for which its signature skill is actually important. Extremely important. If you take any significant number of Diamond Mind maneuvers, you’re going to need full ranks in Concentration. This is the school of extreme focus and precision, of mind over body and mind over sword.

The most known are probably the three maneuvers that let you replace a save with a Concentration check (though it’s rarely worth taking more than one; they hog readied maneuvers otherwise, and really aren't all that useful in boosting your strong saves). There’s one that lets you make a Concentration check to treat the target as flat-footed against your single standard action attack, a Concentration check versus the target’s AC to resolve a single standard action attack as a touch attack, a Concentration check versus the target’s AC to deal double damage (and before anyone cries broken, do note that you’re forgoing iterative attacks and need to make both a Concentration check and a normal attack roll, both against the target’s full AC), a standard action attack that uses your Concentration check instead of damage (far less impressive than it sounds, actually).

Not every Diamond Mind maneuver requires Concentration, but a ton of the better ones do.

The ultimate technique for Diamond Mind is called Time Stands Still. No, it is not supernatural time manipulation; it’s just fast, precise swordmastery. It allows you to make two consecutive full attacks instead of just one, which can of course be quite deadly, especially if you set it up right. As a technique that amounts to your capstone should be.

Iron Heart: For the swordiest of sworders.
Bastard sword, dwarven waraxe, longsword, two-bladed sword
This is the sole Warblade-exclusive school, and it’s about… swording good. It’s a fairly generic but well-rounded school with both offensive and defensive techniques. Iron Heart maneuvers tend to be more accurate and target multiple foes, but can also damage enemy weapons, allow rerolls, provide a small amount of healing, and parry/counter enemy attacks.

The unifying theme here is very much an aesthetic, that of the tough, determined swordsman tearing through hordes through skill with the blade and heroic resolve, carving your way to a clear leader, taking him on in a duel and ending it with a big, decisive blow (like, say, the aptly named Finishing Move which deals a big pile of extra damage if the target’s at half health).

The ultimate technique for Iron Heart is a thematically appropriate boss-slaying strike. A fitting capstone, but the Strike of Perfect Clarity is a single standard action melee attack that deals +100 damage. It sounds impressive at first, but it’s actually not all that great considering it’s only available from levels 17 to 20. At that point, it’s entirely reasonable to have 30+ strength and a +10-equivalent sword or close to it, among other perks, such that you deal 10d6+20 damage or better on a hit. You have full iterative attacks, so with haste (which you’d likely have at the most crucial moments, at least), that means five attacks that deal an average of 55 damage each, two of which are at your highest base attack bonus, and that’s being fairly conservative. Still, it’s a nice visual raising your sword overhead, giving your battle cry and bringing down that one telling blow.

Setting Sun: It’s judo.
Sense Motive
Short sword, quarterstaff, nunchaku, unarmed strike
Swordsage only
This is the second of the three Swordsage-specific disciplines, but this time, it’s not supernatural. Setting Sun can best be compared to judo; it is the least direct discipline with a great many throws to rearrange the battlefield as well as a lot of countermeasures to defend yourself with, plus some tactical mobility effects. For example, one of the first-level Setting Sun maneuvers is Counter Charge. If an enemy charges at you, you can make an opposed strength or dexterity check (your choice) and if you win, the enemy’s charge fails as you either evade the charge and they keep going or you forcibly redirect them. If you’re larger than the charging foe, you can get a bonus to the strength check, and if you’re smaller, you can get a bonus to the dexterity check.

For the throws, the standard format goes something like this; you move, make a trip attempt against your enemy with a bonus from the maneuver and if you succeed, they fall prone and you can move them ten feet or so with your throw and (for the higher-level versions) they may take some damage. There can be additional effects. For example, Comet Throw lets you throw your target at another enemy, who has to save against some damage or they also fall prone.

Some of the higher-level maneuvers even let you redirect an attack meant for you towards another target.

The ultimate technique for Setting Sun, the Tornado Throw, basically allows you to move up to twice your speed and make a throw as described above against pretty much everyone you come across, which can really rearrange the field to your advantage. As expected from this school, it’s the least direct ultimate technique, but if used well, it can be very effective.

Shadow Hand: With a name like that, you should be able to guess.
Dagger, short sword, sai, siangham, unarmed strike, spiked chain
Swordsage only
And now, the third Swordsage-only school, and the last of the three supernatural schools. Picture an assassin with shadowy magic. That’s this school. It has stealthy techniques, your supernatural movement forms (including short-range teleportation), a few ways to deal ability damage, a couple flavors of “throttle the enemy with dark magic,” temporary invisibility, status effects, miss chance. Lots of fun and sneaky stuff, but it does tend to rely heavily on save-or effects that are utterly unimpressive if the foe succeeds, and Tome of Battle classes are usually very bad at those since they need to boost combat stats instead of things like Wisdom or Charisma that the saves tend to be based on, rendering some of the maneuvers pretty much useless, which is always unfortunate. The school could have done well with dexterity-based save DCs rather than wisdom-based.

Shadow Hand stances are… well, it really doesn’t matter. Most Swordsages are probably going to spend all their time in them regardless of what they do for one simple reason. Shadow Blade. This is a feat that lets you apply dexterity to damage while using a Shadow Hand weapon if you’re in a Shadow Hand stance. This feat is one of the few ways to make a real finesse-based combatant work, or at least one that isn’t rendered useless by the first zombie, construct, plant, ooze, elemental, or critter who just happens to be immune to critical hits. And, since Swordsages tend to need a lot of stats to be rather high, a lot of them end up going the finesse route to alleviate that stress. It’s not that Shadow Hand stances are bad or uninteresting, and this really isn’t a problem with the school itself- quite the contrary, finesse combatants really needed the love- but it does mean Shadow Hand stances tend to get old after a while. Particularly since about half of them tend to be movement modes that you’re not likely to use in combat, that brings it down to about three combat stances that most Swordsages will spend almost all their time in.

The ultimate technique for Shadow Hand is the Five-Shadow Creeping Ice Enervation Strike. Stupid name, mediocre effect. It’s a single standard action melee attack (which, as always, means it needs to be pretty impressive to compare to a full attack) that deals an additional 15d6 damage (average of 52.5, which isn’t stellar at this point) and it has a special effect, which fortitude mostly negates (and due to the save issue stated above, the enemy will probably succeed). The effect is chosen at random, but can be 2d6 dexterity damage and the enemy’s speed is reduced to 0 for 1d6 rounds (nice, but many monsters at that point wouldn’t be hindered by it), 2d6 strength damage and a -6 penalty to attack rolls and Concentration checks (not bad against a melee foe, admittedly, but a melee foe is all but guaranteed to make the save), or 2d6 damage to all physical stats (which is quite nice, but again, the enemy will save). One of the big problems here is that in the level 17+ range, so many creatures are immune to ability damage that this move is oftentimes fairly useless, save for the unimpressive (for the level) damage bonus. I’d say this school is competing with Desert Wind for worst ultimate technique.

Stone Dragon: For when you just need to hit someone really hard in the face.
Balance (again)
Greatsword, greataxe, heavy mace, unarmed strike
This is the one school that everybody gets (despite seeming a bit odd for Swordsages), and it’s rather straightforward. It’s all about standing firm and taking the other guy down with brute force. And to that end, I really like the weapon selection for this one; a big, sharp sword, a heavy, brutal axe, a really big stick… or just punch the other guy in the face.

A lot of the Stone Dragon moves amount to, “I hit that putz really hard,” but by and large, the effects aren’t simply, “Normal damage plus Xd6.” They’re actually still interesting, like hitting your foes so hard and in such a way that they’re staggered and immobilized for a round, or you fracture their bones through brute force granting anyone who threatens a crit against them a big bonus to confirmation rolls, or one of the signatures of the school, bypassing hardness/damage reduction. Also, the save DCs against Stone Dragon maneuvers are strength-based, so you’re going to have more reasonable save DCs for your maneuvers than Shadow Hand is liable to get.

There are other moves as well, such as a stance that grants you a constrict ability, significantly increasing your damage in a grapple, or temporarily give you damage reduction, or give you bonuses to/against things like bull rush or overrun (though not to the point of making bull rush/overrun actually, y’know, useful).

The ultimate technique for Stone Dragon is the Mountain Tombstone Strike. It’s a standard action attack that inflicts 2d6 constitution damage if it hits, no save. Now, this does sound impressive at first, but so did Strike of Perfect Clarity. On average, this maneuver deals 7 constitution damage, which is effectively on par with dealing 3.5 damage per hit die the enemy has, so unless the target has well over 30 HD (which is rare even at level 20), you’re worse off than Strike of Perfect Clarity where the extra damage just doesn’t compare to a full attack. Perhaps more importantly, however, is that by the time you get it, a great many enemies are outright immune to ability damage, which comes together to make the move useful in an all-too-slim array of circumstances.

Tiger Claw: I have fury!
Kukri, kama, claw, handaxe, greataxe, unarmed strike
Swordsage, Warblade
Tiger Claw is the school of savage fury, which has you jumping around and ripping peoples’ heads off. This is the school for the more primal, barbaric techniques. It’s also the only school that gives any real, direct love for dual-wielding, but not much, sadly. A number of Tiger Claw maneuvers are the most damaging attack of their level.

The signature technique for Tiger Claw are the various jumping strikes, where you leap up into the air and come down on them to inflict pain. These tend to require Jump checks made against either a fixed DC or the target’s AC, and if you fail the check, the maneuver fails outright.

The school also has quite a few save-or effects, but the DCs are strength-based, so they’re a little more reasonable. One that really secures this school’s brutality in my eyes is Fountain of Blood. Basically, if you kill someone (or multiple people), you can spend an immediate action to turn it into a grisly display that forces enemies to save or be shaken. Not very good, admittedly, but certainly stylish.

Also, Tiger Claw has a maneuver called Girallon Windmill Flesh Rip. That secures Tiger Claw’s status as awesome. What’s Girallon Windmill Flesh Rip do? With a name like that, it doesn’t matter. (But for the record, it adds a rend attack onto the end of a full attack that deals additional damage based on the number of times you’ve managed to hit the target in the course of a round, to a maximum of 20d6 in the unlikely event that you manage eight hits in one round.)

The ultimate technique for Tiger Claw is… actually rather disappointing. Feral Death Blow. Make a Jump check against the target’s AC, then a single attack. Save or die. On a failed save, you still do normal damage plus 20d6 (70 on average), but death effects are just obsolete at this point; so many enemies are immune to them, and even with strength-based DCs, not a lot’s gonna stand a reasonable chance of failing their save at that level. Oh, and anything immune to critical hits is also immune to the death effect, in case there weren’t already enough enemies that are immune to it already. Also, it takes a full-round action to pull off, so it doesn’t even give the mobility benefits of Strike of Perfect Clarity or Mountain Tombstone. It’s the only literal save-or-die in Tome of Battle, and the book would be better off without it. But most of the rest of Tiger Claw is of far greater quality.

White Raven: Go forth, mine minions!
Longsword, battleaxe, warhammer, greatsword, halberd
Crusader, Warblade
Finally, there’s White Raven. What the Marshal wishes it could be. This is the school of commanders and generals, centering on teamwork and supporting your allies. This, of course, means that depending on what kind of allies you have behind you, this school’s power can range from nigh useless to the most powerful school of all.

One of the first White Raven maneuvers, for example, is Leading the Attack. It is… a completely ordinary standard action attack. However, if it hits, all allies get a +4 bonus to attack rolls against whoever you just hit. If you have a lot of party members making attack rolls, that’s great. If you don’t, well, it’s not so great.

White Raven techniques can grant allies extra accuracy and damage, prevent foes from making attacks of opportunity, render targets flat-footed for your allies, allow your allies to move around on your turn, rearranging the battlefield, or even (at higher levels) grant allies an extra attack.

The ultimate technique for White Raven, War Master’s Charge, is like much of the school; it can be either the most powerful of them all or one of the worst depending on what kind of support you have behind you. When you use it, you charge an enemy, dealing an extra fifty damage. Also, every ally within thirty feet can charge your target (assuming all the standard caveats for a charge), dealing an extra 25 damage. Also, you all share your +2 AB bonus for charging, meaning if you have four people charging (yourself included), you all get +8 to hit. If two or more of you hit, the target is stunned for a round. Note that limits in party structure mean you’re probably going to have two or three people (yourself included) in this charge in fairly decent circumstances, and even under excellent circumstances with huge amounts of backup, limits in geometry tend to make it rare to get more than four or five people charging, and that’s assuming you can get them into position in the first place. I point this out because more than once I’ve seen folks arguing that you can use Warmaster’s Charge to get a couple dozen peasants charging a balor to kill the thing, therefore Tome of Battle is the broken, ignoring the fact that getting a couple dozen peasants in charging range of a balor without getting incinerated is a task unto itself and if you've managed it, you've already earned the win, but I digress. War Master’s Charge. My candidate for best-made ultimate technique in Tome of Battle.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Expanded Class Feature 9: Divine Mind

Class: Divine Mind
Source: Complete Psionic

How it Works:
I’ve worked up an all-purpose ‘How it Works’ article for psionics as a whole, which can be found here.

Okay, back to psionics. This time, we look at the absolute worst psionic class out there (with the caveat that Soulknife really doesn’t count) in my quest to get all the crappy classes out of the way first so that I’m left with the good stuff.

This is the first class from Complete Psionic, which is widely regarded as a piece of trash that overly relies on reprinting old material from XPH with minor (and often unnecessary and often ignored) updates paired with mediocre original content. Which isn’t to say it’s all crap, particularly since there aren’t many other sources of psionic material, but it’s still not a well-made book.

Anyways, there’s actually a bit of history behind the Divine Mind, or at least rumors that I’ve heard. Apparently, Ardent and Divine Mind were originally meant to be one class, but they were deemed to be a bit much, and so they were split. Ardent won out of that divorce, though like the Shadowcaster, on closer inspection, Divine Mind isn’t quite as bad as I thought going in, but it’s still a mess.

Full disclosure: I’ve never actually really used this class for anything. And for good reason.

Fluffy Bits:
The Divine Mind is a psionic Paladin without the alignment restriction and less code-related rubbish. And… that’s really it. Or perhaps a Favored Soul would be a better comparison? Basically, they channel god juice to get stuff done.

Crunchy Bits:
Skeleton! Medium BAB, d10 hit die, strong fort/will, 2+ skill points from a crappy list, martial weapons, heavy armor, shields.

Medium BAB and a d10 hit die. The only other WotC creation I can think of that has that frame is the Soulknife.

For features, the Divine Mind has three things going on; mantles, auras, and powers. While with regards to fluff, they’re psionic Paladins, with regards to mechanics, they’re more like psionic Bards or Marshals, just with crappy skills.

First, mantles. These are similar to domains for Clerics. They have up to nine powers, and an associated special ability (though mantle abilities tend to be comparable to half a feat rather than a full feat like domain abilities tend to be). Mantles are a feature exclusive to the Divine Mind and the Ardent.

However, there’s one big thing that separates mantles from domains; the Ardent and Divine Mind don’t have spell lists. Period. Instead, they can only select powers from their respective mantles. To make up for this restriction, they get more mantles than Clerics get domains. The Ardent gets six mantles over fifteen levels, gaining three in their first two levels, and the Divine Mind gets… three. One at first-level, one at sixth-level, and one at twelfth-level. Also, unlike Ardents who derive their powers from personal philosophies and may choose whichever mantles they please, the Divine Mind is linked to a deity and has her mantle choices restricted by her deity in much the same way as a Cleric. There’s a page dedicated to listing mantles for PHB, Forgotten Realms, and Eberron deities, giving each four mantles in their portfolio. You get three. So your choices are very nearly made for you unless you’re playing in Eberron and can worship the entire Sovereign Host as a single entity gaining access to any of their domains/mantles that you please.

Then, there’s power progression. This one is just bizarre. They go up to sixth-level powers, sure, but they don’t gain access to first-level powers until level five, then don’t get sixth-level powers until level 20. They only get nine powers, ever, and only get 62 power points by level 20, in comparison to the Psychic Warrior- one of the other main manifesting classes that cap out at 6th-level powers- who has 127 power points and 20 powers by level 20. Manifesting is based on wisdom.

Then, there are auras, which are similar to Marshal auras or Dragon Shaman auras or Bardic Music. They start out affecting allies within a whopping five feet and the range increases five feet at a time up to fifty feet at level twenty. This means that at low levels, when you don’t have any powers at all yet thus making your one mantle and its half feat pretty much a joke, when all you really have to set yourself apart is your aura… it only works within five feet. Blah.

You can only have one aura active at any given time (scaling to two or three at a time later) and changing auras takes an hour’s meditation (falling all the way to a swift action by level 18). There are no use-per-day restrictions on auras; you can keep them up all day long.

Divine Minds start with three generic auras- one granting a 1-5 point bonus to AB (scaling with level), one that does the same for AC, and one that grants a +2-6 point bonus to Spot, Listen, and initiative (scaling with level).

In addition to the generic auras, Divine Minds get an additional aura option with every mantle they have. All three of them. Here’s the problem. Most of them are utterly mediocre and a lot of them don’t scale. For example, +2 on bluff checks made to feint! Woo! Or a flat +1 bonus to damage, but only if the target’s already wounded. Or a +2 to overcome spell resistance, but only against outsiders. Admittedly, some are pretty good, like DR1/- scaling to DR5/- at level 20. Admittedly, DR5/- is pretty cruddy at high levels unless you’re facing hordes of nickel-and-dime mooks, but being able to constantly grant that to the whole party at once is nice, and at first level, DR 1/- is actually meaningful.

However, since you have so few mantle options, already restricted by deity, and they’re your only source of a spell list, there’s just so much stacked on mantle/deity selection in order to simply not suck eventually. You need all your limited supply of powers and auras to be top-notch at all times in order to just be decent, but that’s nigh impossible given the constraints.

Oh, and there is a series of feats- Tap Mantle, Don Mantle, and Extra Aura- that can grant you access to the power list, granted ability, and aura of another mantle. The feats must be taken in order. Unless you’re worshipping a pantheon, if you go that route, these three feats essentially grant you access to a fourth mantle that you chose not to take in the first place because it’s the least useful mantle your deity offers. Woo.

Oh, and they get Divine Grace as a Paladin at level four.

Put the Divine Mind side-by-side with a Bard, and it comes up short on almost every level. Divine Mind auras don’t really keep up with the more versatile Bardic Music, their manifesting is less effective and far more constrained than bardic casting, and that’s really all they have; no skills, no secondary perks, just a bigger hit die and heavy armor/weapons. Meh.

But, the class is salvageable. First and foremost, it needs the same power point/power level progression as the game’s other two manifesters who cap out at 6th-level powers- the Lurk and the Psychic Warrior. Powers available from level one, power points topping out at 127. I’d also give them two mantles at level one, for a total of four (all their deity’s mantles), and a total of twelve powers (two per power level).

I’d also be open to stepping up some of the crappier, non-scaling auras to make them… well… stop being crappy.

Then, as more of an aesthetic move than anything, I’d probably switch them over to charisma-based manifesting. The Psychic Warrior’s already a medium BAB melee class that gets up to 6th-level powers, and it also shares company with the more casting-centric Ardent from whence it’s spawned; putting a little more distance between the two is a good thing. There’s room for a more melee-oriented charisma-based manifester to sit next to the Wilder. I’d also probably make the aura a flat 30’ aura, maybe bumping it up to 60’ at level 10 or 15, simply because the itty bitty aura sizes at low levels are very annoying.

There’s still the problem of having your power selection restricted by your mantle selection, usually resulting in a hideously crappy makeshift spell list, but that’s kind of a balancer to the class. It may be such a big deal, however, that tossing full BAB into the mix may be appropriate.

Divine Mind is pretty much a melee class. You don’t have the power point supply or power selection to be much of a caster, you don’t have skills, and while you could do archery in theory, it really doesn’t work out well unless the party’s built around you; your auras don’t reach very far, and they’re most useful on the front lines, so you need to be suitable for the front lines.

To that end, strength and constitution are your main stats, and you don’t want a penalty to dexterity. You need wisdom, of course, since it’s your casting stat, though it has extra importance here; you don’t have much of a power point pool, so you need all the bonus power points you can get. I probably wouldn’t raise it above 16, but it may be wise to pair that with a wisdom-boosting item for more power points. Your skill list sucks and you only really need Concentration, so you can dump intelligence. Charisma fuels Divine Grace, but you have a lot of other stat demands, so you may only be able to manage, like, a twelve in charisma if you’re not forced to dump it outright.

Also, a lot of your auras- including your three generic auras, which could well be your best- are morale bonuses that don’t stack with other morale bonuses. If your team has other significant sources of morale bonuses, you’re pretty much useless and should probably consider something else, like Psychic Warrior.

However, by and large, I’d almost classify this as a misfiled NPC class, the same category I put the Marshal, Healer, and Dragon Shaman in, though it’s not quite as bad. It’s not very good, can’t do much, and they’re mainly an aura-meister who can’t do much themselves. Not very interesting as PCs, but they can work as NPC leader units, particularly since aura types are really only any good when they have a group of allies of a type and size that PCs rarely have. If the party has two people in melee, one being the Divine Mind and the other the Rogue, then that +2 AB aura just isn’t as good as it is for the NPC leading a group of five gnolls and an ogre. Also, as an ally, Divine Mind tends not to be a glory class, so it’s a good ally to give to back up the party.

Buffing auras
Um... has powers, eventually, kinda...
Um… not much else

Very slow to start
Ridiculously small auras at low levels
Late and stunted casting
Lots of auras either don’t scale or outright suck
Mantles tremendously limit power selection

Remaining classes: Ardent, Artificer, Crusader, Dread Necromancer, Empyrean Monk, Erudite, Exorcist, Lurk, Muse, Occult Priest, Pact Warrior, Psychic Rogue, Psychic Warrior, Ravaged Soul, Rookblade, Soulborn, Swordsage, Soul Weaver, Spirit Binder, Templar, Totemist, Unbound Witch, Warblade, Warbinder.

Next Time: Probably Warblade. Really, this time.

Postscript: Due to the amount of time writing these things takes, some installments may shift to biweekly, depending on how much time and energy has to go into them. Some are quick, some aren't, and of course, sometimes life's busier than other times. This next installment's probably two weeks away.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Expanded Class Feature 8: Incarnate

Class: Incarnate
Source: Magic of Incarnum

How it Works:
I’ve worked up an all-purpose ‘How it Works’ article for incarnum classes as a whole, which can be found here.

This time, we crack open Magic of Incarnum and take a look at the definitive incarnum class, the Incarnate. Incarnum is the second-to-last alternate system to start work on, and probably the most obscure, so let’s go.

Fluffy Bits:
If you’ve read what incarnum is in the ‘How it Works’ article, then the bulk of the fluff here can be explained by simply explaining the class’ name. Incarnates have an alignment restriction, in that you must be neutral/good, neutral/evil, lawful/neutral, or chaotic/neutral. You can be a Good Incarnate, an Evil Incarnate, a Law Incarnate (who is contractually obligated to make at least one Judge Dredd reference in her lifetime), or a Chaos Incarnate. You can call these distinct classes in about the same way that you can call an Illusionist and an Enchanter different classes.

The Incarnate is, quite literally, the incarnation of a single alignment aspect, and through that alignment they can pull the associated aspect from the well of souls that is incarnum to create their soulmelds. So a Law Incarnate who makes an Incarnate Weapon is literally forging a sword made of cosmic-level justice and honor.

Ironically (and thankfully), Incarnates don’t have any sort of code of conduct binding them like the Paladin’s overbearing code. Just a clause that if your alignment changes, you lose class features.

And that’s really the long and short of it; the Incarnate is a paragon of their alignment that wields it as their tool.

Crunchy Bits:
As always, skeleton first. Low BAB, strong fortitude/will, d6 hit die, 2+ skill points per level, simple weapons, medium armor, shields.

It’s worth mentioning the skill list. You get seven skills. Three of them are Knowledge skills. Two are Craft and Profession. The last two are Spellcraft and Concentration, but meldshapers aren’t spellcasters. This is, quite possibly, the crappiest skill list in the entire game. Intelligence isn’t a major stat and you only get 2+ skill points per level, but a great many soulmelds give significant skill boosts that could make this class a decent skill monkey.

Anyways, as you should be able to tell from the low BAB and d6 hit die, the Incarnate is primarily a frontline melee class. Yes, I am being serious. Each of the meldshaping classes corresponds to one of the three core divine casters; Totemist to the Druid, Soulborn to the Paladin, and Incarnate to the Cleric. However, meldshaping doesn’t have the healing or the vast array of utility and support abilities. Really, they’re just personal buffs, so buff your hit points up, boost that AB, and wade into the fray. It’s a case of confused design, but it works.

Anyways, class features, starting with the incidentals. At level 1, you get an aura as a Cleric of your alignment and Detect [Opposed Alignment] at will. Meh.

At level 3, you get a +1 to your soulmelds’ essentia capacity, increasing to +2 at level 15. Considering soulmelds normally top out at 4 at level 18, that’s pretty big.

Also at level 3, you get Incarnum Radiance, which is boost based on your alignment; melee AB for law, AC for good, melee damage for evil, and movement speed for chaotic. The bonus scales from +1/+1/+2/+10’ to +5/+5/+10/+50’ by level 20. This works in a manner similar to rage, with a duration based on wisdom, and like rage is only usable a few times per day and it leaves you fatigued afterward (at least until level 17). This starts off as self-only, but you can share it with your allies at level seven, which is quite nice.

Next, you get Rapid Meldshaping, which lets you swap out a soulmeld a few times per day as a full-round action.

Then, you have your capstones. First, you become an outsider with your alignment subtype. Second (but more importantly), you have Perfect Meldshaper, a.k.a. asskicking mode. Once per day, for a number of rounds dependent on your wisdom modifier, all your soulmelds are filled to their essentia capacity. This is liable to effectively be equivalent to double your essentia or close to it. A real, meaningful capstone. There’s a rarity.

And then, we have the actual meldshaping. Incarnates get the best meldshaping abilities, though they are followed closely by Totemists. Their essentia pool grows from one to twenty-six. They gain access to the crown chakra at level two (earlier than the Totemist, though considering that’s when the Totemist gets their unique totem chakra and the crown chakra’s pretty underwhelming…) and they’re the only base class that can access the soul chakra (at level 19, where it’s actually not all that impressive). Otherwise, they gain access to chakras at the same rate as Totemists. Your supply of chakra binds scales from one at level two to five at level eighteen.

And of course, you have the soulmelds. You go from being able to shape two at a time at first-level to being able to shape nine at a time at 19th-level, though the number of soulmelds you can shape is also limited by your constitution score; you need 19 constitution to shape nine soulmelds. And on that note, the save DCs for your soulmelds’ effects are calculated as ten plus essentia invested plus your wisdom mod. In other words, complete trash that enemies will probably only fail on a natural one at higher levels.

Incarnate soulmelds lack the tighter central theme of the Totemist (and yes, I know I’m comparing a lot to a class I haven’t even reviewed yet, but… they’re really all there is to compare to), but you have a lot of them; more than any other class. Generally, these can be split three ways. You get a lot of skill boosters, which you can’t generally make the best use of single-classed unless they have good chakra binds, you have buff effects that can get your AB, HP, and the like up to the levels you need (which are pretty much your bread and butter) and incidental effects, like short-range flight/teleportation that really help round out your ability set. A lot of chakra bind effects fall in that last category, and they all come together to be pretty good and round you out quite well, but it’s not really good enough to truly justify twenty levels in this class as-is.

Today, we have a new section. The adaptations! A few of the older feature segments could have probably used this, most notably the Shadowcaster, and this will probably be a fairly regular addition in the future, as-needed.

I’d say WotC dropped the ball a bit on the Incarnate, but only a bit. In the Incarnate skeleton, they treat meldshaping with the same weight as full spellcasting, but it’s not at that level. Not even close. Incarnate is supposed to be the incarnum Cleric, but doesn’t get the Cleric skeleton when the Totemist gets the Druid skeleton.

Really, the Incarnate could a far more worthwhile class to take to level 20 (as opposed to being dipping fodder) if it had a Cleric’s medium BAB and maybe the d8 hit die and heavy armor. And some skill boosts would be nice, too. Nothing major, but maybe 4+ with the physical and diplomatic skills.

On the fluffy side, the D&D alignment system is an incoherent mess and encouraging it is rarely a good idea. A class so closely tied to alignment itself is… problematic, in all the same ways that alignment is already problematic. At the very least, I’d ease up a bit and allow, say, a lawful/good Good Incarnate, if only because the combination with Paladin is appropriate and attractive.

However, it’s easy enough to strip away the alignment aspects and instead make the Incarnate a manifestation of an ideal or an emotion, like love or rage, then either replace existing features or pick the most appropriate. For example, a Love Incarnate might be able to detect attraction and grant fast healing or temporary hit points with her Incarnum Radiance. A Rage Incarnate might swap out Incarnum Radiance for Barbarian Rage (and perhaps get Share Rage at level seven; probably not as useful as it sounds, especially in a normal group, but it could be cool).

Incarnate can also fairly easily fit the standard Cleric/Favored Soul mold, wielding the power of their deity, or be a more traditional arcane scholar who simply knows how to make these soulmelds through intensive study rather than being the physical embodiment of impossibly pure pureness.

My own experience with using Incarnates has pretty much fallen into three types. Those who don’t go past level four, those who multiclass out by level four, and those who are gestalt. In a standard game, it’s just never seemed worth it to go past level four because of that low BAB.

But… that’s really not a big deal; Incarnate multiclasses phenomenally well with almost anything, just take a 1-4 level dip. If you multiclass a skill monkey, your soulmelds boost skills and provide useful options like short-range flight. If you multiclass melee, Incarnate brings a plate full of buffs. And usually, “Never give up caster levels,” is nearly an axiom for casters, but the Sapphire Hierarch prestige class is essentially the incarnum theurge, advancing both meldshaping and divine magic at every level, and you can get in on one level of Law Incarnate with a few levels in nearly any divine caster. It doesn’t give you access to any chakra binds, but six soulmelds and an essentia pool of eleven (before feats, race choice, and items) on top of almost full Cleric or Archivist (or whatever) progression is nothing to balk at. In any of those cases, you pretty much just build as you would build the other side of the multiclass. There’s even a Soul Manifester in the Mind’s Eye web enhancement series which combines incarnum and psionics in much the same way as Sapphire Hierarch. It requires the ability to bind to a chakra, so you’ll either need to take a second level of Incarnate to get in or wait until sixth level to take the Open Least Chakra feat; I suggest the latter, to keep your power progression up.

Now, if there is a skeleton boost in place, Incarnate could well be worth taking to level twenty. In that case, constitution is a big deal; you need a constitution score of 19 to shape as many soulmelds as possible at higher levels. There’s also a feat, Expanded Soulmeld Capacity, which can increase the capacity of a single soulmeld by one… up to a maximum equal to your constitution modifier. That means, at the highest levels, you’d need a constitution score of 24 to get a single extra point of essentia in a single soulmeld. If the game’s expected to go to level 18+, it’s probably not worth it (though 24 isn’t horribly unreasonable with a magic item), but you can skip that feat. (Then again, at lower levels, that feat is awesome.)

In general, if you’re focusing more on tanking, you want to be on track for a constitution score of 20ish before magic items by level 20. If you’re focused more on murder, you want to be on track for a constitution score of 20ish after magic items by level 20. If you don’t expect to get that far, you still want a serious constitution score since you’re a front-line class with a d6 hit die.

Either way, odds are strength will be your main stat, since you have major troubles hitting people. Law Incarnate helps here with its AB boosts. Dexterity is, as always, something you don’t want a penalty in. Intelligence, you can outright dump; your skill list is garbage. Charisma can be dumped. And wisdom? While you don’t want a penalty to it, it doesn’t give you much.

For soulmelds, AC boosts can make you one of the few effective tanks. Vitality Belt is a must, eventually. It’s like Improved Toughness for every point of essentia you put into it (note: the bonus equals your meldshaper level, making this awesome for pure Incarnates and crap for multiclass incarnates), and you need the hit points. This thing can take you from dangerously squishy to one of the biggest sacks of hit points the party can ask for. AB-boosts are a godsend, though the best of them are Law Incarnate exclusives.

If there is no skeleton boost, but you’re still dead-set on pure Incarnate, there is a way at higher levels, if you incorporate psionic material. If you play as one of the psionic races, like Elan, or just play as an Azurin and spend your bonus feat on Wild Talent, you get a power point pool which allows you to become psionically focused and take psionic feats. One of these feats (which has another feat as a prereq) is Deep Impact, which lets you expend psionic focus to resolve a single melee attack as a touch attack. Unfortunately, it requires +5 BAB, so you’re not going to qualify until level 10 and without retraining, you’re not going to get it until level twelve. Add Psionic Meditation, which allows you to regain psionic focus as a move action, and you can take a single standard action attack as a touch attack per round, and against most foes, touch attacks are much easier to pull off, often laughably easy. Next, get a two-handed weapon like a spear and use Power Attack; you’re only getting one attack per round, so make it deal as much damage as possible. This works best with Evil Incarnate and its damage boosts. And in case you haven’t noticed, this route is highly feat-intensive, hinging on a combination of five feats, and doesn’t come together until high levels.

Another, easier option to consider is something I’d really only recommend for the Incarnate. The Book of Exalted Deeds’ Vow of Poverty. This feat basically means you forgo all material goods- including pretty much all gear- and instead gain a bunch of pluses that are supposed to approximate level-appropriate gear. For most classes, this is an extremely bad idea because, although the pluses are your bread and butter, the other magical effects like flight are the kinds of things you’re completely boned if you don’t have access to. However, the Incarnate’s soulmelds can emulate a great many magic item effects, and actually chakra binds tend to come into conflict with magic items anyways, so this is a two-fer. And it makes sense for a Good Incarnate.

Largest array of soulmelds
Largest essentia pool
Ready-made excuse for Judge Dredd references
Good tank (after very low levels)
Multiclasses spectacularly well

Crappy skills
Weak skeleton
Poor scaling
Chakra binds can conflict with magic items
Closely tied to alignment

Remaining classes: Ardent, Artificer, Crusader, Divine Mind, Dread Necromancer, Empyrean Monk, Erudite, Exorcist, Lurk, Muse, Occult Priest, Pact Warrior, Psychic Rogue, Psychic Warrior, Ravaged Soul, Rookblade, Soulborn, Swordsage, Soul Weaver, Spirit Binder, Templar, Totemist, Unbound Witch, Warblade, Warbinder.

Next Week: Divine Mind

Saturday, September 4, 2010

How it Works: Incarnum

This is a unified “How It Works” section for all incarnum-using classes. That’s Incarnate, Soulborn, and Totemist.

Incarnum comes from Magic of Incarnum, one of the later entries into the 3.5 library and one with fairly little support. Dragon Magic has a few more soulmelds, as do web supplements. I don’t know if Dragon Magazine ever put anything out, but really Magic of Incarnum has nearly all the incarnum material.

So, to start off, what is incarnum? It’s essentially cosmic soul stuff. Incarnum is the energy of all souls, whether they’re living, dead, or not-yet-born. Any mana analogue works, though.

Also, incarnum is blue.

There are a few vocabulary words to know when dealing with incarnum, and really, they’re the hardest part.

Soulmelds: These are the bread and butter of incarnum. Basically, a soulmeld is where you take a bit of incarnum and shaping it into a tool and melding it to your soul (hence the name) for a time. You can think of a soulmeld as a kind of phantom magic item, or a visible buff. Each is associated with a part of the body (those Cerulean Sandals go on your feet), and tend to manifest as ghostly body parts or equipment. They each have a certain benefit, like bonuses to skills, AC, or AB, or more interesting abilities like the ability to spit acid or fly short distances or inflict fire damage on foes who strike you in melee. These benefits improve via the next two vocabulary words. Soulmelds do not have levels, and all meldshaping classes gain access to all their soulmelds automatically. The number of soulmelds you can shape at a time are limited by your class level and your Constitution score.

Essentia: Personal soul energy. Mechanically, essentia’s just a pool of points that you shuffle around your soulmelds (or in some cases, feats and abilities) to improve your benefits. So, the Gorgon Mask increases your fortitude saves by one, and for every point of essentia you have invested in it, the bonus improves by one more. Essentia can be shuffled between your soulmelds as a free action once per round, letting you adapt to changing circumstances. So, when you really need to strangle somebody, you can shunt that essentia from your Gorgon Mask, losing the fortitude boost, to your Girallon Arms, gaining a bonus to grapple checks. Essentia can be gained from race or magic items, but it’s mainly a class feature. The maximum amount of essentia you can invest in a single place is limited by level, going from one at level one to four at level eighteen. Certain feats and class abilities can improve this, up to about seven or so.

Chakras: Every character already uses chakras. They just go by a different name; magic item slots. Normally, soulmelds don’t use item slots, so you can have a soulmeld associated with your throat and still use a magic amulet. However, as your level goes up, you open up chakras, letting you bind soulmelds to them. When you bind a soulmeld to a chakra, it becomes more powerful but uses up a magic item slot. So, for example, Mauling Gauntlets normally grants a bonus to strength checks that scales as you invest essentia. If you bind it to your hands chakra, it takes up a magic item slot but grants you an equivalent bonus to unarmed damage along with the benefits of Improved Unarmed Strike. Which chakras you can bind to and how many soulmelds you can bind are limited by class level.

And, with that vocabulary, that’s pretty much the bulk of it. Just get your eight hours’ rest, do your hour’s spell preparation- in this case, it’s shaping and binding soulmelds for the day- and go about your adventuring way shuffling around your essentia between your soulmeleds as needed. It’s a very simple system.

Characters who don’t take any levels in incarnum classes can still get in on the incarnum game. Shape Soulmeld lets you shape a single soulmeld, and it’s an awesome feat for filling in blanks if you ever have a feat to spare. Almost anyone can put it to use. The Azurin race are basically incarnum-infused humans who get a point of essentia instead of bonus skill points, and an Essentia Jewel is a cheap magic item that can get you a second point. So, if you’re planning a human Paladin of Kossuth (FR’s god of fire), you can go with an Azurin and spend a feat and a few gold to get Shape Soulmeld: Mantle of Flame so that anyone who hits you in melee takes 3d6 damage (2d6 before you hit level 6).

Incarnum has a lot going for it, but ultimately, it has one major flaw. It doesn’t really scale well. Essentia capacity goes up with level regardless of whether you take incarnum classes (though incarnum classes get a little more capacity than non). You get all your soulmelds at level one (or level four for Soulborn, but they suck). All you really get for leveling up is more essentia (which is admittedly very nice) and the higher-end chakra binds, which tend to be underwhelming for the number of levels you have to invest to get them.

On the other hand, incarnum makes for some great dips. 1-4 levels in Incarnate or Totemist get you a huge stack of soulmelds, some essentia to play with, and your basic chakra binds, and you can just multiclass out to some melee class or skill monkey or something with a nice sack of goodies. There are even a great many incarnum feats that are explicitly designed for multiclass incarnum-users, like Cobalt Rage (which you can invest essentia in for bonus damage while raging) or Indigo Strike (which you can invest essentia in for bonus damage on sneak attacks). And while the incarnum dip is not a bad thing- in fact, it's a rather good and interesting thing- the fact that it’s so rough going straight meldshaper is a bit problematic (though it is entirely doable if you know what you're doing).

In addition to multiclassing spectacularly well, incarnum also fares well in gestalt, since it compliments everything. Not much more to say, there.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Expanded Class Feature 7: Foe Hunter

Class: Foe Hunter
Source: Secrets of Pact Magic

How it Works:
I’ve worked up an all-purpose ‘How it Works’ article for pact-making classes as a whole, which can be found here.

Alright, stepping into Secrets of Pact Magic. This time, we’re working with the Foe Hunter, one of several hybrid-type classes that integrate a solid base set of class features with spirit binding. In this case, a rogue/ranger/binder mesh. This one’s my least favorite of the spirit-binding classes, and I still like it, which should say a great deal about how highly I regard the material. As if my glowing praise for Secrets of Pact Magic hadn’t already. Next time I dip into pact magic, I'll probably go for my favorite pact magic class, the Unbound Witch.

Full disclosure, I’ve never actually used this particular class, either as a DM or a player.

Fluffy Bits:
The Foe Hunter is… exactly what it says on the tin. All binders haggle with spirits who hardly exist anymore, beings grasping on any means to influence the world again. The Foe Hunters are the ones who entice spirits by promising to kill people they don’t like. And this class is about killing people, in no uncertain terms. In fact, you can pretty much take penalties for NOT killing people. This is a sneaky/stabby class in the same vein as the Rogue or Ninja, with a dark magic edge. It’s also a darker class, leaning more towards bounty hunters and assassins than the noble thief.

Overall, this class has a very antiheroic edge to it. There is lip service given to good-aligned Foe Hunters who only go after evil foes and who subdue/capture targets, but we’re talking about a class that takes penalties for not killing people. This is a major antihero class, at best.

And whatever their bound spirit’s favored enemy is, the Foe Hunter is compelled to kill them or suffer penalties, so if they bind a spirit who hates dwarves, you’d better hope you don’t happen upon some friendly dwarves. And there’s actually a spirit whose favored enemy is all humanoids, so that could well mean the Foe Hunter takes penalties for not murdering the entire party in their sleep. This really hinders their social life and tends to make them loners, often more suited for NPC status than PCs.

Still, it’s a cool class for that dark, hateful hunter/assassin type character.

Crunchy Bits:
Mechanically, the Foe Hunter is a synthesis of Ranger and Rogue with binding flare.

First, the skeleton. Medium BAB, d6 hit die, 6+ skill points per level from a Rogue-like list, strong reflex saves, rogue weapon proficiencies and light armor. A Rogue-like skeleton for a Rogue-like class.

The foe hunter partly centers around their bound spirit or spirits’ favored enemies, which you get bonuses against. So, if you bind Aza’zati you get bonuses against humanoid spellcasters, and if the next day you bind Mute Sylvus, you get bonuses against magical beasts instead.

The first bonus you get is Favored Spirit Enemy, which is like a Ranger’s Favored Enemy, but applies only against your bound spirit’s favored enemies. This bonus goes from +2 at level 1 to +10 at level 20. You also get a bonus on some skill checks (like Diplomacy) when working with your spirit’s favored allies.

Also at level one, you get Track (with Swift Tracker at level 8) as a bonus feat and a rather nice feature called Mark Foe. At will, you can take a standard action to essentially declare vendetta against a single foe, marking it for two minutes during which time you add half your favored enemy bonus to hit and damage (even if they’re not a favored enemy). You can only mark one foe at a time. Of course, blowing a standard action in combat is a significant price and may not always be worth it, but if you sneak up on a foe, mark them, then open fire, it’s nice. Of interest, this is a medium BAB class and Mark Foe adds up to +5 to hit, making up for lower accuracy, with certain constraints. Actually being able to hit is always good.

The last feature you get at level 1 (other than binding) is Spirit Driven. This feature is very simple. If you see one of your favored enemies, you are compelled to kill them. As soon as you recognize any favored enemy within thirty feet, you suffer a -1 penalty to all d20 rolls and a -4 penalty to Concentration unless you are trying to kill the enemy. This penalty lasts until you kill a favored enemy (not necessarily the one who triggered this effect) or until your pact ends. And the wording is unclear, but it seems like the penalty would stack with itself, such that if you run into seven dwarves and they’re your favored enemy, you eat a -7 penalty to all d20 rolls for the day unless you kill a dwarf.

This is the feature that really turns me off of the Foe Hunter. The murderous bloodlust on sight is just… not something I’d want to deal with, from any angle.

Moving on, you get Evasion at level two (advancing to Improved Evasion at level 13) and Trapfinding at level three (which is odd). Also at level three, you start gaining Sneak Attack at half progression, going from 1d6 at level 1 to 5d6 at level 17.

At level four, you get Boon of Lost Souls. If you kill someone, you can get a bonus to an attack roll made soon thereafter. It works three times per day. At level five, Uncanny Dodge (advancing to Improved Uncanny Dodge at level 9). At level six, Death Attack like an Assassin. At level eight, you can make coup de graces faster. At level ten, you get Locate Creature once a week. You also gain Scrying at level 13, Slay Living against marked foes at level 15, Power Word: Kill at level 18, and Discern Location at level 20, with various uses per day/week depending on the ability.

You also get supersenses. Scent at level 7, 30’ blindsense at level 16, 30’ blindsight at level 19.

And then, you have spirit binding. You get a Bard-like progression, capping out at 6th-level spirits, which limits some of the effects you have access to, but does tend to make those binding checks a bit easier to make.

Lower spirit levels, of course, limit what you can do with them, and you’re probably not going to have the big constitution score required to really make good use of anything that has a save DC, once more limiting the range of powers you can use effectively more towards the buffs and passive abilities. However, there’s the matter of your spirit’s favored enemy and, to a lesser extent, favored ally. If you know what you’re hunting and want to get your Favored Spirit Enemy bonus, then the choice of spirit has already been made for you, even if the spirit’s powers aren’t any good at hunting your enemy. On top of that, if you’re hunting, say, a dwarf, you have to worry about all the friendly dwarves who may stack penalties on you if they come close if you don’t kill them, which really complicates hunting down your dwarf. Also, you have to keep track of your spirits’ favored allies because a lot of your features outright don’t work against them.

And if you don’t know what you’ll be dealing with for the day, well… sucks to be you.

Plus, there’s the issue of access. Your spirits advance slowly, and you are restricted by what favored enemies they have, so if you want to go minotaur-hunting, no spirit has monstrous humanoids as a favored enemy and if you’re third-level going after an ogre, sorry, but Vandrae isn’t available until you hit level eight, and she only has the male giants as her favored enemy.

Bringing all that together, it just puts way too much importance on what really seems like it should be an unobtrusive secondary aspect of spirits, applying too many obnoxious penalties to contend with if you have to deal with a favored enemy on friendly terms or oppose a favored ally.

You’re the sneaky scout, same as the Rogue or the Scout or the Beguiler or the Factotum or a number of others. The fundamentals are similar. You have quite a few sources of bonus damage (mark, Sneak Attack, Favored Enemy, spirits), so dual-wielding can work well, and archery is another obvious choice on a dexterity-based class like this. Either way, I suggest going a route that doesn’t demand a great deal of strength; you need a lot of stats.

Odds are dexterity will be your main stat, since this is a sneaky/stabby class. Constitution is always important, particularly since you only get a d6 for hit points and they determine the save DCs four your spirit’s granted abilities. Normally, I’d advise just blowing off save-ors entirely on a class like this, but since favored enemies/allies play so strongly into what spirits you bind, you may be stuck with save-or effects as your most useful granted abilities, and in those cases, it helps to has save DCs that someone might actually fail against. Still, constitution probably won’t be your primary stat.

Strength, you don’t want a penalty in, and a bonus here can help, but it’s not extremely important. You have 6+ skill points per level, but as a skill monkey, you need lots of skill points and if you can’t afford to take Ignore Binding Requirements, you’re going to need some of those skill points to meet prerequisites for your spirits. That makes intelligence important for every Foe Hunter. Wisdom is something you can take or leave; it affects your weak will saves and detection skills, which aren’t that important. You’ll probably need something to dump, and wisdom is a good candidate.

Then, there’s charisma. Really, charisma isn’t all that important. You can even dump it. At lower levels, so long as you can meet the requirements for binding spirits, the consequences for failing your binding checks aren’t too terribly significant. Not many personality influences are more significant than, “If you see a dwarf, kill it,” and few physical signs are as bad for your social life. Admittedly, if you fail too badly too often, your alignment could be in peril, so you may not want to dump charisma too badly. At higher levels, you get your usual scaling binding check with levels, but since you only get up to 6th-level spirits, the DCs to bind them tend to be more forgiving. Damian Darkstar, for example? DC26. You gain access to him when you hit level 18, so even if you have a charisma score of six, your binding check is +16 and your alignment is guaranteed secure as long as you’re not eating any penalties. Of course, a twelve or fourteen here is always nice.

One of the bigger concerns is feat selection. This class is pretty strapped for feats. It gains no bonus feats and the two most obvious styles- archery and dual-wielding- are rather feat-intensive. Darkstalker (Lords of Madness) is always a must-have on higher-level sneaky sorts, since it lets you actually get a roll against the stock supersenses (Scent, Blindsense, Tremorsense, Blindsight) rather than simply automatically being detected. Also, Secrets of Pact Magic provides Soul Strike; as long as you’re bound to a spirit, you can use your Sneak Attack against foes who are normally immune, like constructs and undead, but only up to a number of damage die equal to the highest level of spirit you can bind. Another must-have in most campaigns. Just covering the barest essentials, you may chew through most or all of your feats, leaving little freedom in that regard. However, if you have some feats to spare, it may be worth considering spending a feat to secure your alignment and Volcanic Burst, which can give you a hefty boost to save DCs, but most likely only once per encounter. While you really shouldn’t rely on your save-or abilities, Volcanic Burst lets you get more bang for your buck when you have to take them.

One last feat worth mention that’s a real double-edged sword is Anima Binder, which would allow you to bind anima spirits that don’t have things like favored enemies and allies. If you bind an anima as your spirit for the day, you would forgo your favored enemy bonus, but you wouldn’t take penalties for not killing every dwarf that walks by or be unable to use a class feature because the foe is a favored ally. As a safety net for when you’re uncertain what the day will be, it’s worth considering if you can spare the feat, but you probably can’t.

And, as always, know your (relevant mechanical element)s. In this case, spirits. A lot goes into picking which spirit or spirits you’re gonna bind. You have to balance all the complications and benefits that favored allies and enemies bring with your overall build and the abilities themselves, so there’s quite a lot of data you need in order to make an informed decision.

As a final note, if you want to use a Foe Hunter NPC, life becomes a lot easier as the NPC can explicitly build around a single spirit at a single level for use against a single creature type and doesn’t really suffer as much from social stigmas brought about by compulsions to murder. For that reason, I see the Foe Hunter as more of a DM tool than a player character (even though the vast array of class features and fiddly bits screams “PC”) for use for the demon hunter NPC or the undead hunter NPC or the PC hunter NPC.

A broad and useful array of flexible abilities
Solid thiefy skill list
Secure employment in the murder industry

Lots of conditional abilities makes it difficult to bring out your full power
Compulsions to murder are bad for your social life
Spirit selection is often largely done for you

Remaining classes: Ardent, Artificer, Crusader, Divine Mind, Dread Necromancer, Empyrean Monk, Erudite, Exorcist, Incarnate, Lurk, Muse, Occult Priest, Pact Warrior, Psychic Rogue, Psychic Warrior, Ravaged Soul, Rookblade, Soulborn, Swordsage, Soul Weaver, Spirit Binder, Templar, Totemist, Unbound Witch, Warblade, Warbinder.

Next Week: Incarnate (I need a little more time to work on the Tome of Battle primers)