The second installment of Michael Sayre’s Incarnum-style series clocks in at 28 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page SRD, 1 page advertisement, leaving us with 24 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
Depicted herein would be the Guru-base-class, who gets d8, 6+Int skills per level, proficiency with light armor and simple weapons, but not shields and enhance these based on class choices made – more on that later. Chassis-wise, the guru gets 3/4 BAB-progression and good ref- and will-saves. They begin play with 1 veil and scale that up to 8 and 1 essence, which increases to up to 20. The veilshaping of the guru has the DC equal to 10 + points invested + wis-mod. Essence investment into prepared veils can be reallocated as a swift action.
I really enjoy the first level ability gentle touch – if a guru invests one point of essence into this ability, all damage he does with a weapon becomes nonlethal, but also receives + wis-mod bonus, rewarding not killing everything that crosses the PC’s path. What’s also pretty odd – per essence invested, the ability deals +1d4 nonlethal damage. Now the issue is – does this stack with the wis-mod bonus damage? If so, then this is pretty much a very powerful damage boost, perhaps beyond what one would expect. Also: Does the first, unlocking point of essence invested add the +1d4 as well or just the wis-mod? The double increase to damage makes me think that the wis-mod perhaps was supposed to replace Str or Dex for the purpose of BAB-calculation? Be that as it may, while not broken, this ability could use some clarification. Beyond this, I also believe that the ability perhaps could use an exclusion-clause for shuriken and the like – since the damage applies to everything, combining that with shuriken and/or multiclass’d flurries of stars…OUCH.
1st level Gurus also choose a philosophy,. which grants a linear progression of abilities at 1st level and every 3 levels thereafter. Philosophy abilities tend to burn essence points, which means that the essence cannot be used or reassigned until the guru has had a chance to meditate, providing a complex game of resources between flexibility and power – you can’t write player agenda in larger letters. Additionally, gurus of first level get stunning fist, but with some tweaks – the benefits can be applied to weapon attacks made with gentle touch and the guru can burn three essence to regain 1 use of stunning fist 1/day, +1 at 5th level and every 5 levels thereafter. 2nd level nets chakra bind in the progression of Hands, Feet, Head, Headband, Neck, Belt, Body. 4th, 10th and 19th level increase the essence capacity of chakras by +1.
The 3rd level guru may interrupt the chakras of foes when executing an attack – this works as a standard action pretty much akin to vital strike and has a DC of 10 + wis mod, +2 per essence invested in gentle touch, which allows for a pretty nasty escalation of DCs – imho, this one should be nerfed to at least +1 per essence. You don’t need me to make the math for unbeatable DCs. The negative condition lasts for wis-mod rounds (odd, seeing how the DC is essence-based – why not also increase durations here?) and scales up over the levels.
7th level nets an autohealing ability determined by the amount of essence invested, though essence invested in the limited-use ability cannot be reinvested until rest. 8th level allows gentle touch to act as sunder-attacks that ignore 1/2 hardness AND allows for the damaging of foes that are immune to nonlethal damage. 16th level provides, apart from a lack of bolding of the ability name, the option to expend stunning fist uses when attacking foes to double as what amounts to a single-target disjunction that leaves items intact. The capstone provides healing and even temporary essence to the guru when e.g. disjoining foes – cool and surprisingly powerful!
Now I mentioned philosophies – a total of 3 are provided, with each granting its own set of uncommon proficiencies the first of which would be the Akasin. When meditating in an area of bright light, they can gain a pool of temporary essence that is burned first by the respective philosophy abilities. Alternatively, these points can be used to execute as a veil of positive energy. At 4th level, healing blindness is possible, as is shooting rays – which deal an untyped damage AND lack information on their range. Both should be rectified. Higher level akasins further marginalize the poor shield bonus to AC, bypassing it alongside 2 points of AC with blades of light – it should be noted that expenditure of stunning fist uses can further upgrade this ability.
The akasin may also use an essence-burn-powered raise dead, thankfully with a daily limit. At 16th level, I am not complaining about taking essence burn of up to class level to add as bonus damage that ignores all resistances and DRs, though factor 5 is NASTY. I think adding a daily cap would be in order here for reasons of preventing (relatively inefficient) one-strike-builds- “After all, the guru can always conjure forth light and meditate for temporary essence points…blablaba” – you get the rationale: Burning temporary essence at 16th level would grant up to +40 to damage for one attack. Now this *looks* much worse than it is in game – meditating this one back would require 8 minutes, so no spamming AND it is a significant expenditure. See, that’s why I playtest these classes – this one looks much more powerful than it is. So yes, I like the ability, though I believe it could be one that will sooner or later end in undeserved pointed fingers.
The sineater philosophy is somewhat problematic – it allows for the regain of essence burn via attacks of gentle touch when used against targets with an Int of 3+ . The ability also allows for the reflexive burn of essence to negate damage that would bring the guru down to below 0 hp – interesting, since the amount of damage negated is significant and would be overpowered, were it not for the restriction, thus making the guru a good candidate for last man standing. While the Int-caveat avoids failure of the kitten-test, I’m still not 100% sold here – though the rest of the philosophy is balanced against this – limited DR and limited fast healing/regeneration for essence burn make sense regarding the established, steep costs while allowing the guru to work as a functional tank. Burning essence to increase the damage dealt to evil outsiders, aberrations and undead on a 1:5-basis is brutal and allows for damage outputs that dwarf paladin smites, but only on singular attacks. So yeah, the guru is brutal here. 10th level provides atonement (lacking italicization) and some minor non-standard wording – inescapable unarmed attacks (powered by essence + grab quality…) and AoE unarmed attacks are cool, though the most powerful ability here lacks a duration for the paralyze effect -and if it’s supposed to be permanent…ouch. Even at level 19 nasty.
The third philosophy would be the Vayist, who would be the agile trickster to the sineater’s tanky playstyle – using essence burn to increase the range-increments of ranged weapons or duplicate spells (lacking italicization) as well as getting back up quickly. 10th level nets breath of life and is solid. The base ability allows for debuffs of foes that target creatures that are not the vayist, essentially making him a solid kiter – why? Because not including the vayist in attacks allows for them to regain essence burn – which works perfectly considering the emphasis on movement and flexibility – for players that enjoy flexibility and movement superiority, this one is fun indeed. It’s also the most refined philosophy in that it imho has the least minor hiccups.
The pdf, obviously, also sports a significant array of feats, some of which you will probably know from the vizier’s pdf – that is, obvious gestalting functionality is still maintained in the tradition of incarnum, surpassing the options of this system by quite a bit. Now some feats imho could be a tad bit more refined – when untyped energy damage (against which no DR or resistance helps) can be added to attacks, that’s nasty. Increased maneuver-bonuses AND better damage outputs in conjunction with Piranha Strikes and Power Attack are pretty strong, though that is balanced by requiring, obviously, essence-investment. Enhanced Veil Capacity, still proved to be pretty much a no-brainer in my playtests. Life Bond proved to be somewhat problematic for akasin gurus – why? Because it lets you take damage and heal allies – since the akasin can heal himself indefinitely as long as he has time and access to light, we’re seeing an infinite healing option for the group here and one that can break in-game logic pretty hard – can you see the nightmarish visions of guru-healing-batteries beyond the front-lines of the evil empire? I can. Damn. That imagery is actually cool. Still, I think there needs to be some limitations implemented here. This problem also extend to the Martyr’s Toga veil, btw., though that one’s wording makes me believe it was supposed to have a daily limit of uses akin to other healing veils.
Dual binding of veils is also possible and offers yet another tactical option. Essence of the Immortal provides 2 x essence pool bonus hp and counts as toughness – a pretty blatant power-escalation even without the additional essence granted by feats et al. – this can easily upgrade your hit points by ~50 for non-optimized builds. While fitting the theme of specific builds, I still consider this in need of a gentle whack with the nerfbat – or a different scaling mechanism that is not based on total essence. Perhaps grant a base hp-bonus and allow for essence burn to temporarily increase that?
The veils presented obviously have some overlap with those of the vizier, but are not limited to those already known from the first pdf – there are quite a few cool exclusives here! One theme you’ll note is movement – from air walking to increased movement rates make sense – though the latter’s lack of bonus type means it’ll allow for a nasty combination of speed-types you usually don’t see – with items and spells, you can get problematic speeds here. The Stalker’s Tabi is a pretty nasty beast – unlimited short range teleportation and hide while being observed/in plain sight is slightly earlier than usual – 6th level, when usually HiPS is relegated to 7th or 9th level – perhaps include a level-based scaling mechanism here? The Eyes of the Hawkguard can be bound first as see invisibility, later even as true seeing – constant! And yes, this one gets the balancing right! Fluid partial conversion of energy damage taken to one favored by the guru is also an option provided by veils – one that can be considered an unique take. It should also be noted that some of these veils actually do interact in rather cool and unique ways with class abilities, including psionic abilities – providing further combo options and screws to tinker with.
Editing and formatting can still be considered good, though I noticed quite a few instances of missing bolding, italicization glitches and the like on a formal level. Michael Sayre’s rules-language is pretty concise and more refined than in the vizier, with a more concise terminology – on a nitpicky side, establishing one type of wording for essence burn vs. burn essence would make the pdf more concise still. The pdf comes in two versions, one in gorgeous 2-column full-color layout and one more printer-friendly version. The artworks are a combination of original pieces and stock art. Strangely, my full-color version had no bookmarks, which constitutes a comfort detriment.
All the positive things I’ve said about akashic classes in my review of the vizier still hold true, so if you want to read about me rambling over the superiority of the system over incarnum, take a look at that review – it still holds true here.
I adore the akashic classes I’ve read so far – the classes are ALL about player agenda – there are so many options to choose, screws to tinker with, math to run – the flexibility of the classes and fully functional gestalting options are exceedingly versatile and utterly fun. They are also a nightmare to review, but that’s beside the point – most classes I LOVE tend to fit that criteria. The guru’s rewarding of nonlethal damage, of actually not being a murder hobo, is something that resonates deeply with my convictions of what it means to be good, so thematically, I ultimately ended up loving this class.
That being said, as much as I’d like to praise this in the highest tones, there are some instances where the wording still needs some refinement, some rough edges that need to be sanded off. If my review above seemed nitpicky, then mainly because I so want the final book to be perfect. One surprise of this pdf, at least to me, was that the guru, on paper, looked essentially broken, with many knee-jerk-reaction inducing choices that mellowed out when doing the math/actually playing the class. The grand potential of problems can be seen in Life Bond – the feat itself isn’t that strong, but as soon as it allows for infinite healing (which it didn’t for the vizier), one can see one tiny oversight in the rules-language that radiates outwards – this needs a daily activation cap akin to similar options to maintain functionality with the akasin – and to future-proof the system to prevent ample future abuse.
So how to rate this? I love Michael Sayre’s akashic classes and can’t wait for the final book, but with the rough edges still in here, I can’t go higher than a final verdict of 4 stars for now – with the explicit note that this very much resonates with me – I am stoked to see the final book – it may be one for the EZG-Essentials-list if Dreamscarred Press can get rid of the rough patches!