Monday 19 May 2014

Inner Sea Combat

I’m a bit surprised it took as long as it did for Inner Sea Combat to come out. After all, it’s been over two years since Inner Sea Magic was released, and the two books seem obvious companion books (in the same sort of way one can think of Ultimate Magic and Ultimate Combat as companion books). However, whatever the reason for the long gap between the books, it’s good to see combat in the Pathfinder Campaign Setting getting the same attention that magic has already gotten.

Inner Sea Combat provides a ton of new options for combat-oriented characters. But this is more than just a book of new feats and other new rules options. Everything in this book is tied to the Golarion setting and, while it’s certainly possible to separate the new options from the setting and use them without the context, I honestly think most of them will lose a great deal in such a case. There’s a wonderful amount of flavour to the options in this book, and they all build on aspects of the campaign setting—many of them things that have been mentioned in other books but not dealt with in detail until now. The book is organized similarly to Inner Sea Magic, opening with a descriptive look at combat across the Inner Sea region (including a list of prominent NPCs), then providing details on variant forms of combat, new character options including a couple of prestige classes and a ton of new archetypes, and ending with an extensive selection of new magic items. People who criticize Ultimate Combat for having a spells chapter will be happy to know that there are no new spells in this book.

The opening chapter is relatively brief and looks at several individual countries known for producing combatants before then providing the aforementioned list of prominent NPC combatants. Like the similar list of spellcasters in Inner Sea Magic, this list provides thumbnail pictures of each character along with classes and levels, and brief descriptions. It’s interesting to note that there are very few very high level characters on this list. Only one (Savith, the Azlanti hero who defeated Ydersius) has any mythic tiers (in her case, she is a fighter 20/champion 6). One other (Arnisant) is 20th level and the the levels fall off pretty quickly after that. Compare this to the number of level “20+” spellcasters in Inner Sea Magic (Mythic Adventures had not yet been published at the time of that book) and it does seem a little off-balance. I’m not actually making a judgement here, as I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. It’s just interesting. Of course, I’m ignoring the fact that there are three gods (Cayden Cailean, Irori, and Norgorber) on the Inner Sea Combat list. Their inclusion seems really bizarre and out of place. I suppose that, since the list does include historic characters (like Savith and Arnisant) and not just current NPCs, and all three gods were once mortals, they are also being included as “historic” characters. However, in such a case, I’d expect to see Iomedae on the list as well. Perhaps she was forgotten?

The second chapter provides numerous forms of variant combat. These run the gamut from regional fighting styles, like Aldori duelling and Jalmeray’s Houses of Perfection, to class options like ranger combat styles and paladin oaths. I particularly like the new ranger combat styles. Each style is specific to one of the gods and can be chosen by rangers who worship that god. Styles for 13 of the 20 core gods are included as well as styles for 3 other gods (Achaekek, Besmara, and Kurgess). Many of the styles are similar to existing styles from the Core Rulebook and Advanced Player’s Guide, but they all have at least a few tweaks to them to make them unique. In all cases, each style fits well with its god’s favoured weapon, though many can be used with other weapons, too. New ranger combat styles are not particularly common, so it’s nice to see the options expanded here.

This chapter also contains rules for characters with animal companions or bonded mounts to gain a bonded monstrous mount by taking the Monstrous Mount feat. Four possible mounts are included: griffon, hippocampus, hippogriff, and worg. I’m a bit surprised not to see pegasus and unicorn on the list, but I’m glad to see this feat included. Players frequently request monstrous mounts. That said, I do have my criticisms of the system. Griffons and hippogriffs (both flying mounts) come with the restriction that they cannot carry a rider while flying unless you take a further feat (Monstrous Mount Mastery) to allow this (hippocampuses and worgs gain other “new” abilities by taking this added feat). This is presumably for balance reasons, but it really hurts flavour, and to be honest, I’m not sure the balance issues are all that bad. Characters already have to take an extra feat to get the mount; I don’t see the need for yet another feat to be able to ride it in flight. Indeed, what’s the point of a griffon or hippogriff mount if you can’t ride it while it’s flying? Also, there are already rules in the game for characters to use (non-bonded) flying mounts, such as through the Leadership feat. It seems strange and over-complicating to make the rules work differently in this case. True, animal companions are often not identical to non-companion versions of the same animals, but this takes away one of the identifying aspects that makes the creature what it is.

The third chapter looks at the different kinds of combat schools in the Inner Sea region, along with specific examples of each. It uses the same system Inner Sea Magic uses for magic schools, which itself is based on the faction rules in the Faction Guide. As a result, it suffers from the same problems I pointed out in my review of Inner Sea Magic, namely that the length of terms can cause problems. But that aside, this chapter offers a great insight into the ways characters actually learn martial skills, from dojos to gladiatorial arenas to thieves’ guilds to war colleges.

The fourth chapter is the largest chapter in the book and provides a plethora of new character options beginning with a couple of new cavalier orders, as well as a sidebar detailing how the orders from the Advanced Player’s Guide fit into the setting. I’ve often commented that I wish there were more details on how cavalier orders fit into the setting, and this sidebar kind of addresses that problem. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really address it enough. It tells where (and with what races) the orders are common or popular, but it doesn’t give information on how characters join particular orders, or how those orders relate to other military forces in the land, or how they’re viewed politically. There’s no information on the hierarchies of the order or any mention on how a character can be part of a particular cavalier order and simultaneously part of a knightly order as seen in Knights of the Inner Sea. Of the two new orders, the Order of the Beast provides exactly the kind of information I want to see:
There are no colleges or universities where an aspiring cavalier can learn the ways of the order of the beast; it is a corruption of the other cavalier orders, and its secrets are whispered in the dreams of unbalanced youths by dark beings and passed down in forbidden rituals. (30)
Unfortunately, the other new order, the Order of the Guard, does not contain similar information, except that it’s popular in Druma. That said, both orders offer some great new options for GMs. Unless you’re playing an evil campaign, the Order of the Beast doesn’t really work as a PC option, but it’s great for villains—the leader of a group of rampaging orcs, for instance. The Order of the Guard, with its mercenary leanings, could work well for both PCs and NPCs, with the NPCs being either allies or enemies.

The chapter continues with a couple of prestige classes (the Pure Legion enforcer and Ulfen guard) and 21 new archetypes. There are archetypes for all the martial classes, from fighter to rogue to gunslinger—there are even two antipaladin archetypes. The Iroran paladin archetype (for paladins, naturally) contains a line that would have been nice to see in Inner Sea Gods: “Irori has no universal paladin code” (39). It would have explained the lack of a code for paladins of Irori in Irori’s section of that book. One of the more interesting archetypes in the book is the Ouat dwarf monk archetype. This archetype doesn’t just swap out class abilities; it also swaps out some of the dwarven racial traits, making it an archetype only usable by dwarf monks and no other race.

The final chapter is entirely new magic items. A large chunk of these are (not surprisingly) new armours and weapons, but there are also quite a few new wondrous items, a couple of new rings and a rod.

One of the things I like best about a book like Inner Sea Combat (the same goes for Inner Sea Magic) is that it’s much easier to see immediate uses for the new options contained within. Pathfinder is a game with a lot of options—far more than most people can easily keep track of. While generic books like Ultimate Combat may contain many interesting abilities, they can quickly get lost in the deluge as they don’t have a context to make them stand out. But with the world-specific flavour that Inner Sea Combat offers, its options are instantly more recognizable. They make both the characters and the world more interesting. There are several things in here that I already want to introduce to my own games, and any game book that fills me with ideas is a good book, in my opinion.

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