Alternate Paths: Social Characters

Alternate Paths: Social Characters

This massive installment of the Alternate Paths-series clocks in at 87 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 2 pages of SRD, leaving us with an impressive 83 pages of content, so let’s take a look!

 

This book was moved up in my review-queue as a prioritized review at the request of my patreons.

 

So, what is this book? One could picture this supplement, as a whole, as a spiritual heir to both Ultimate Intrigue and Campaign, but I’ll get more into the nit and grit of that later. In case you have not discerned that – this may not be the book to get if you’re looking to run a murder-hobo dungeon-crawling campaign – the focus here is on intrigue, social iteration, etc. As such, the book assumes use of the downtime-rules from Ultimate Campaign. The pdf then provides a couple of considerations for characters and for what it means to be “civilized” and some general assumptions there – this ties into the dichotomy between primal and civilized characters, which is also represented by a few favored class options grouped not by class, but by what end of the primal/civilized-dichotomy the character represents.

 

We move on from here to considerations on certain types of deities – these represent general tropes of urban gods and come with the proper array of domains and the like. In an interesting conceptual twist, some deities are classified as predatory, meaning that they don’t have followers in the traditional sense, but that they are basically “worshiped” by falling prey to the: Drugs, as an example, would one such concept. I do like how this influences potentially the meta-considerations of the game and we also get to know about locational deities.

 

Now, beyond this, we are introduced to the concept of social “caste” – the pdf acknowledges that this may not be the best word to describe the system, but, as a matter of fact, it makes sense – if you take a look at how historical societies worked (and continue to work, to a degree), you’ll notice that the notion is not only restricted to pseudo-Indian environments. Social caste may be advanced via certain classes in the book and a feat can also be used at character creation to inherit caste. It is interesting to note that the higher castes come with a required minimum level – if you want to take levels in the 3-level socialite PrC, for example, each level will have new minimum level requirements, which thus means that upper caste characters will generally have a higher level than lower caste beings. The PrC nets, just fyi d8 HD, 6 + Int mod skills. It sports full spellcasting progression and nets a social path bonus each level – more on those later. For the purpose of the PrC, PCs start as “strangers” and progress through the 3 castes. Each of the castes has several distinct social paths: These include e.g. crime bosses gaining an income as well as a bonus to Intimidate and Bluff versus lawful creatures. Commanders gain morale bonuses when attacking professional soldiers and beings in your organizational hierarchy cannot deny you proper requests…but all of those paths also come with a social responsibility – these are similarly tied to roleplaying, with the example of teh crime boss requiring the boss to keep his charges safe, while the commander, obviously, is beholden to the structures of the military in which he serves.

 

Being famous or infamous, a physician or the like all can be found. In the middle castes, we can find merchant princes, ministers and bannerman, while the lower castes contain ascetics or champions – I kinda wished we got a bit more of these – 4 lower versus 7 upper caste paths show the system tilting a bit towards the more prestigious occupations. That being said, the system does engage in something that does rub me the wrong way: We get “misc. bonuses” in quite a few of the abilities granted by these paths – know how many bonus types PFRPG has? Do we *really* need another one that is not clearly defined? Not a fan here, particularly since some have been codified according to proper types.

 

The pdf also introduces a mechanic for social combat – unlike Ultimate Intrigue’s verbal duels, these social combats are designed to be pretty rules-light and may take place in combat. As a standard action, you roll 1d20 and add the number of skill ranks (NOT the easily cheesable skill’s value!) and the associated ability score modifier – the skill must qualify as being a social combat skill, obviously. Yes, these are concisely defined. The DC would be 10 + 1/2 the opponent’s HD + the highest mental ability score modifier of the target opponent. If you exceed the target DC, the opponent takes 1d6 nonlethal damage per 2 ranks in the skill used. If you exceed the DC by 5, you also gain an edge. Social combat is a language-dependent, mind-affecting ability. A character defeated primarily by social combat gains the yielding condition – it cannot take hostile actions, may only defend themselves and is considered defeated – it should be noted that the GM retains some control here.

 

I mentioned edges – there are three of these and only one may be spent per social combat. These may be used to reduce the number of damaging d6s rolled taken from social attacks, can add +2d6 to the social combat damage, or add +4 to a social combat roll. It should be noted that this section does not specify an activation action, which it should – it is pretty clear from context that using an edge should not require an action and is considered to be part of the respective proceedings. The mechanic is precise, mind you – just complaining about the oversight of this formality.

 

A further aspect that influences social combat would be determination – these would be the creature’s willingness to stay in combat: Determination is equal to the creature’s highest mental attribute + the creature’s HD. (As a minor nitpick: HD are usually noted first in such formulae.) Now, pretty interesting: The determination of a creature is modified, according to situations: A parent protecting his/her offspring, would e.g. double determination, while convincing peasants to rise up against a hated despot is much easier and halves their determination.

 

So, how does social combat run? Well, the result of using this system is that wise-cracking heroes can deplete pretty efficiently the determination of otherwise superior, but brutish/dumb creatures, getting them to stand down/see the error of their ways. Since determination is tracked individually, larger amounts of foes can make for more rewarding combats, while combats versus few or singular enemies can be solved decisively and quickly. Whether you like that or don’t depends very much on your game’s playstyle. That being said, the simplicity and elegance of the system allows for VERY easy GM-customization: You can run these social combat rules completely without determination…or you could use determination as additional “social-only” temporary “hit points” that kick in upon reaching 0 hit points, if you want to. So yeah, I am not the biggest fan of the default system, but I very much enjoy what you can easily do with it.

 

All right, next up would be 3 new classes: The noble gets d8 HD, a whopping 8 + Int-mod skills per level, 3/4 BAB-progression and good Will-saves. Proficiency-wise, the class gains access to simple weapons, hand crossbow, rapier and all one-handed non-exotic firearms as well as light armor. At the start of each social encounter or verbal duel, they gain edges  equal to Charisma modifier +1/4 class level, which are designated as noble edges. I *assume* that these do not adhere to the usual “1 edge per social combat”-rule, but I am frankly not sure. They begin play as a member of the upper class and gain a social path, as per the previous rules. Noblesse oblige, however and thus, each noble must choose and adhere to a given ideology: Personal glory, group glory, organizational glory, greater good or movements may be chosen and all have in common that they feature restrictions for the noble and also determine cases in which edges may not be used. These are concisely defined. The noble begins play with renown and increase that to great renown at 5th level, incredible reknown at 9th, fabulous reknown at 13th and regal renown at 17th level. And yes, these are concisely presented.

Second level yields social graces (another is gained at every even level thereafter) – in case you have not figured that out, indeed, there is some overlap between the social aspects of the vigilante class and the noble Instead of such a social grace, teamwork feats, social combat feats, social caste feats or the aforementioned social bonuses may be gained.

 

2nd level also yields the ability to talk down foes – when inflicting non-lethal damage via social combat, they may enhance their damage output, temporarily inflict negative conditions and allies may be targeted to grant them temporary hit points. This, weirdly, mentions an ally saving against it, which is not something the social combat rules here sport as a default. At 6th level, the push button ability allows for the expenditure of noble edges to determine the attribute of the target used to defend against a social attack. Beyond that, depending on the attribute chosen, the noble may choose one of two different effects to generate associated effects, ranging from calming targets to treating damage rolls as 4s or granting more temporary hp. Starting at 7th level, the noble may use noble edges to talk down foes as a swift action, but may not exceed one talk down attempt per turn.

 

3rd level allow for the combination of regular and social combat attacks. 4th level allows for the use of edges to grant morale boosts to themselves (only one per round and here, noble edges and regular ones are distinctly set apart, clearing up any confusion there…but still, wished that the base mechanics had noted that.). 5th level provides basically evasion for Will-saves,, which extends to all allies within line of sight and earshot at 19th level. 11th level increases talking down social damage, while 15th level increases the steps attitude is moved via Diplomacy and Intimidate. As a capstone, we get immunity to mind-influencing effects and auto-confirmed crits in the area of renown. And yes, the immunity can be suppressed. The class comes with FCOs for the base races and some more exotic ones from LRGG’s oeuvre.

 

Furthermore, the class comes with a massive list of aforementioned social graces as well as advice on playing a noble – which centers on both elaborating the class mechanics and the roleplaying aspects of it. We even get suggestions for different “types” of noble and fitting social graces. All in all, I enjoyed this class more than I thought I would, in spite of the few hiccups, it is generally a worthwhile option.

 

The next class would be the legionary, who gets d10 HD, must be non-chaotic, and receives full BAB-progression, good Will-saves, 6 + Int skills per level and proficiency with simple and martial weapons and all armors and shields, including tower shields. The class chooses a unit type at first level – these unit types are assigned social classes and receive their own class features – each day when assigning tactics, this type may be chosen and the social classes act as a limitation here. From quicker flurry-like thrown attacks to bonuses to atk and damage when they have not moved, the respective unit type features generally are interesting and fit the themes. They also scale with class levels. As always, I am not a fan of per encounter abilities, which e.g. the triarii sport (insert my long and at this point, well-known rant why this makes no sense). Cool: Second level yields bonuses to AC when receiving a morale bonus or sharing a teamwork feat and may share spaces with allies, which can be rather potent. They also get a kind of wildcard equipment ability called “arsenal” at 3rd level, which may not be cheesed. Magical arsenal is unlocked at 8th level, which can be galling for some GMs, but yeah – I can see it work in some campaigns.

 

3rd level and every 3 levels thereafter yield a teamwork feat and 4th level grants access to the first so-called legionary tactic, +1 every 4 levels thereafter. Galling: The wording here is messed up: Beyond a bear/bare-glitch, the wording here contradicts itself, implying two base tactics at 4th level versus the 1 it previously states – it requires checking the class table to deduce which one it is.

 

The legionary tactics are associated with the aforementioned unit types and two per unit type are provided. While these generally are pretty cool, the downside of the limited choice is that there won’t be much variation between different legionaries of one caste. At 10th level, 1/3 class level of them may be reassigned as a swift action…which, considering the limited selection, is less potent than you’d think.

 

6th level and every 4 levels thereafter yield Skill Focus in a skill (or a noble’s social grace) – these also include unlocks and double as increases in rank. The capstone nets massive social skill bonuses and automatic critical confirmation versus professional soldiers. I really like that “professional soldier” is defined here concisely – and so is “citizen”…but frankly, that should NOT be hidden in a class capstone. Considering that this is not the only ability referring to these concepts, it should have been properly defined in the base terminology employed by the book. The class sports a few favored class options.

 

The third class featured within would be the showman, who receives d8 HD, 3/4 BAB-progression, good Ref- and Will-saves, must be non-lawful and gains 4 + Int skills per level as well as a custom proficiency list. Showmen are subject to arcane spell failure – the showman gains spontaneous spellcasting of up to 6th spell level, drawing from his own spell-list.

The signature ability of the class, gained at first level, would be a phantom blade – a magical blade that may be drawn as a move action…and yes, Quick Draw etc. is taken into account. When attacking with this weapon, Charisma is used instead of Strength for calculating damage (the rules-language is a bit wonky here, referring to score instead of modifier) and the showman may expend spell slots to increase the damage output of the phantom blade. It attacks, fyi, touch AC. It should be noted that damage type of this bonus damage and the phantom blade is not properly codified either. Targets hit by the blade may succeed a Will-save – if they do, they greatly reduce the damage output of the blade. Also slightly wonky: The conjured, versatile phantom blade is eligible for use with Weapon Focus, which makes all kinds of no sense and renders interaction with other abilities rather wonky. 5th, 117th and 17th level increase the potency and reality of the blade as well as the damage-types the blade may use – which provides a clue that the bonus damage and base phantom weapon damage should not by untyped, but rather the same as the weapon duplicated. 7th level allows for the sacrifice of spells to increase the save DC of the blade.

 

Starting at 3rd level, the class gains Weapon finesse and always treats the phantom weapon as finnessable. He also gains the first so-called bladewarp, of which there are two types: Shapes and effects. Only one effect may be applied to any given phantom weapon, but any number of shape bladewarps may be applied. Another one is gained at 6th level and every 3 levels thereafter. These are very potent and interesting, allowing you to strike at enemy spellslots/unused spells, confusing targets etc. Effects add power, while shapes allow for unique twists, but at the cost of making the blade easier to see through.

 

2nd level provides a bonus to Perform and more gold earned as well as the first carnival trick, with more being learned at 4th level and every even level thereafter . these represent the talents of the class. While the above hiccups did not bode well for the class, I was more than a bit positively surprised by the carnival tricks featured herein: We get the ability to basically teleport within illusions by stepping into the fantasy, readying counters to actions via skill-checks and knowing smiles or the ability to instill an identity crisis in the target that may well be more real than the poor hapless sod imagined. In short: These talents are really creative and make for cool poaching/hacking options, even if you don’t plan on using the class as written.

 

13th level provides more reality for illusions, further enhancing this reality at 19th level. Minor nitpick: Spell-reference not italicized. The capstone eliminates the blade’s save and increases the DC of his illusions. The spell-list’s spells are not italicized and the class gains, once again a couple of different favored class options.

 

Now, while the base class has couple of unnecessary hiccups, it does come with a per se pretty intriguing archetype: the ringleader replaces spellcasting with an ability to generate temporary clones – and the archetype manages to concisely define and reign in this most difficult of abilities to prevent cheesing in a thoroughly concise and impressive manner. Instead of enhancing phantom baldes via spellcasting, he may expend clone uses to increases the damage output versus targets. Carnival tricks are restricted to a degree and 3 unique ones are presented. Additionally, 4th level and every 6 levels thereafter replace the carnival trick gained there with upgrades to clone staying power, with 10th level increasing the daily array of clones beyond the usual scaling of the base ability. Pretty cool: Shell-game-like switching of positions and at higher levels, the destruction of a clone can yield confusion to foes and reflexive swapping. This archetype is really nice and extremely hackable – I really, really enjoy it.

 

From here on out, we get 7 new spells – layout-wise, their pages sport quite a bit of free space – more than two could have fit on a given page, but that’s a cosmetic complaint. From making targets seem buffoonish to making targets look like you (in a variety of versions) or the conviction of being attacked by chickens or other fowl, the spells are pretty nice. Magical very important papers help lending a sense of authority to the PC – but it should be noted that it has a couple of minor formatting deviations. Beyond the usual “extra” class feature feats, the chapter with new feats contains feat-based access to social paths, further enhances their bonuses or allows you to be part of more than one caste via Man of Two Worlds. Similarly, the paths and the social combat system entwine here, granting special attacks to e.g. Academics and sporting the [Social Style] descriptor – a type of bearing in a social context, if you will – otherwise, they can be switched akin to regular styles. And yes, much like regular styles, they sport 2 follow-up feats each and can be considered to be intriguing.

 

The final section of the pdf provides a significant array of different political services, codifying the arranging of relationships, assassinations, bribes, buyouts, etc. – these are well-codified with examples and descriptions, etc. – and both sources and modifiers are included, ending the pdf on a nice note.

 

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting, traditionally a weak point of LRGG’s offerings are generally good – while there are a couple of minor formatting hiccups and some abilities that could use a bit of refinement, as a whole, this represents a step up. On the big plus side, for the most part, this book does actually interesting things, often complex ones, and excels in some seriously difficult rules-operations. Layout adheres to a 2-column full-color standard with a blend of b/w and full-color artworks. The pdf comes fully bookmarked with detailed and nested bookmarks.

 

Scott Gladstein, Ian Sisson and Christos Gurd have created a supplement here that I like more than any previous one in the series: While I personally loved the ascetic character-installment’s esoteric tweaks, these did require a lot of GM-skill and consideration to properly use and this book is significantly more player-and GM-friendly. That being said, the book has, beyond a few editing hiccups, two crucial flaws that keep it from reaching the lofty praise I’d otherwise heap upon it:

 

One, the terminology and its definitions is didactically, not that well organized. Having to look up e.g. the definition of being a “professional soldier” in a capstone is not something I consider to be wise. Secondly, and more importantly in my book, the per se very cool social combat system presented herein could and should be a bit clearer in its presentation – and it honestly is stunning to me why the pdf does not elaborate for a page or so on the means of tweaking its baseline.

 

You see, the math of the system is pretty solid for what it seeks to be, but the default use creates a very distinct and pretty social default mode of operations…and that one may be one some GMs loathe. HOWEVER, the system, with absolutely 0 work on part of the GM, can be tweaked to enable for play in pretty much any campaign and playstyle you want to use. *I* can see the math, how it works in various campaign types and how it must be tweaked to accommodate them at one glance…but the same may not hold true for all customers. It is baffling to me why the pdf does not explain the repercussions of e.g. ignoring determination, of increasing/decreasing it, etc., when it is quite evident that some serious work has gone into the social combat mechanic. In short, even if you’re like me and don’t like the default, which provides pretty speedy resolutions, you may well want to take a closer look here – the system offers much more than what one can perceive at first glance.

 

The classes contained here are on the solid-to-good level: They offer unique tricks as well as sufficient customization options, even though a few minor hiccups can be found. The showman feels a bit like an odd man out – while per se not a bad class, it doesn’t really tie in with the leitmotifs established here. I generally do like the caste-system mechanics and the favors, though the former could have used a bit of expansion.

 

How to rate this, then? Well, the balancing here is pretty good and similarly, even potent and high-difficulty tricks have been codified rather well. While the pdf does have a couple of hiccups that would see me usually penalize it further than I do in this review, I did draw a lot of inspiration from this book and that is something I rather cherish. If you expect perfection from a supplement and some rules that immediately let you go to town, then this may not be what you’re looking for. However, if you’re willing to work with the book, perhaps expand it a bit and do some tweaking, then you most assuredly will get your money’s worth here. Hence, my final verdict will clock in at 4 stars.

 

You can get this interesting supplement here on OBS!
Endzeitgeist out.

 

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Reviewer without a cause