Dirty fighting” is a bit of a nebulous concept. In general, it tends to mean using techniques that are less than honourable—tricks, ambushes, poison, and so on. Yet what one person considers honourable isn’t necessarily the same as what another person does, and truth be told, if you’re in a fight to kill, is anything truly honourable or dishonourable?
Dirty Tactics Toolbox talks briefly about the “Ethics of Fighting Dirty”, pointing out that dirty fighting isn’t necessarily evil, and that context and culture can play a large role in determining what is considered dirty fighting. The book as a whole doesn’t make any judgements on whether any particular methods of dirty fighting are good or evil (even poison use), and instead merely focuses on offering various new options for Pathfinder characters to make use of.
Dirty Tactics Toolbox follows in the vein of its predecessor “Toolbox” books: Ranged Tactics Toolbox and Melee Tactics Toolbox. And much like those two other books, I have the same basic issues with it. While it’s a perfectly functional book, there’s not a lot in it that really stands out and is memorable when compared with the vast amount of other options already available in the game. That said, I do think it edges out the previous two books by a small margin by having a few more things that did catch my attention and a few more instances of nicely integrated world flavour.
One of the best parts of the book is the very first thing noticed upon opening it. The inside front cover contains descriptions of poisons from the Pathfinder RPG Core Rulebook. In the Core Rulebook, poisons have names and game statistics, but no other details about them. Just what is “oil of taggit” or “ungol dust”? Dirty Tactics Toolbox answers that question for those two poisons and six others. It describes their compositions (ungol dust, for example, is collected from tombs filled with undead) and includes a picture. These are the kinds of flavour details I wish Pathfinder Player Companion books had more of. They take plain and insubstantial game mechanics and make them into something substantial.
The book’s layout is like that of the previous “Toolbox” books. The first half of the book is mostly dedicated to different methods of dirty fighting, providing suggested tactics for using the method, along with various feats, archetypes, and other character abilities associated with the method. The second half of the book focuses mostly on equipment, magic items, and spells (with one oddly out-of-place section).
The different kinds of dirty fighting are broken up into contact and injury poisons, ingested and inhaled poisons, sneak attacks, ambushes, and dirty tricks (which are based on the dirty trick combat manoeuvre). Each receives two pages of details and options. This includes information on general, advanced, and specific tactics. Like the previous Toolboxes, the general tactics are quite basic, mostly amounting to obvious things such as the easiest way to get a sneak attack is for you and an ally to flank your opponent.
As the name would suggest, advanced tactics discuss more specific situations and uses. Specific tactics provide suggested feats and other character abilities such as rogue talents that characters can take to be more effective with the particular kind of dirty fighting. I’m glad to see that there is a much clearer delineation between advanced and specific tactics in Dirty Tactics Toolbox than there was in Melee Tactics Toolbox, where the two seemed to do much the same thing. As in Melee Tactics Toolbox, however, no section here features both advanced and specific tactics. It’s always one or the other (plus general tactics).
The tactics generally take up about half a page, with the remaining page and a half of each section devoted to new character options. The vast majority of these options are new feats, but there are also some new archetypes, a few new poisons, a few rage powers, and one new alchemist discovery.
There’s not a lot in these opening sections that really stands out for me, though I do like several of the sneak attack feats (Sneaking Critical is a particularly nice one). A lot of the other feats, however, are rather situational, so I can’t see players choosing them very frequently. The archetypes are functional, though not that inspiring.
At the centre of the book is a two-page chapter on “Divine Trickery”, which is my favourite part of the book. It introduces three new archetypes and three new feats. Each of the archetypes and feats is keyed to a specific god of Golarion. What I like about the material in this chapter that sets it apart from the other archetypes and feats earlier in the book is the amount of flavour. The earlier feats and archetypes are very generic, whereas these are oozing with setting flavour while also allowing for truly memorable characters.
The Asmodean advocate is a cleric archetype that gains a viper familiar and greater abilities at bluffing and forging. The Verify feat is also for followers of Asmodeus and gives bonuses to tell if someone is lying about following a contract they have previously agreed to. If you determine that they are lying, they receive a penalty to saving throws against your spells and spell-like abilities. It’s a rather situational feat, true, but perfect for legal-minded Asmodeans.
The kraken caller is a druid archetype for followers of Besmara. Along with swimming-based abilities, the kraken caller can also use wild shape to grow tentacles. The reaper of secrets is an inquisitor archetype devoted to Norgorber. The two remaining feats are for followers of Calistria and include Trick Spell (a metamagic feat) and Wasp Familiar, which gives characters of any class a cat-sized wasp as a familiar. Reading all the options in this chapter immediately set my mind to thinking up new character ideas in a way no other chapter in Dirty Tactics Toolbox managed.
The second half of the book begins with a chapter containing new equipment tricks to go along with the Equipment Trick feat, which originally appeared in Adventurer’s Armory (and is reprinted here). The feat and its associated tricks allow characters to use equipment in new and innovative ways. I rather like the cloak tricks, particularly parachute cloak. Although the tricks are setting neutral, they still have a lot of flavour to them, and can help make characters stand out.
After this is some new equipment (including things such as alchemical pheromones and serrated caltrops), followed oddly by a chapter on “Trickster Racial Options” with a selection of new race traits. The book then goes back to equipment with some new magic weapons and armour, and then new wondrous items. The “Trickster Racial Options” chapter seems oddly placed in the book, breaking up, as it does, several chapters themed around equipment. It would have made more sense after “Divine Trickery” and before the four equipment chapters. It’s a minor issue, but just feels jarring arranged the way it is.
The final two chapters of the book turn to spells, with the first being a selection of “Poison Spells” and the second being “Dirty Trick Spells”. Despite the name, the latter spells (with one exception) do not have anything to do with the dirty trick combat manoeuvre. Instead, they are a selection of illusions and other spells useful for tricking or getting the jump on opponents.
Like Ranged Tactics Toolbox and Melee Tactics Toolbox, Dirty Tactics Toolbox can be a useful book for designing characters along a specific theme, but like the other two books, a lot of what it offers is relatively generic and doesn’t really stand out amidst the multitude of other options available. However, it does edge out the other two a little by having a bit more that does stand out and is memorable (I want a character with a wasp familiar!). It’s not a “must-have” book by any means, but it’s otherwise reasonably good.