By Thilo Graf
This pdf from Super Genius Games is 97 pages long, 1 page front cover, 2 pages editorial/SRD, leaving a whopping 94 pages of content for your perusal, so let’s give it a closer look, shall we?
First of all, I have to say that I’ve bought this compendium on a whim when it was brand new and it impressed me sufficiently to pre-order both Vol II and III, which have as of yet unfortunately been cancelled. Why am I reviewing this by now quite old publication? Well, first of all, I’m trying to broaden my scope and secondly: We have had some major publications that potentially changed the game we love so much quite a bit: Both the APG and UM have brought major innovations and expansions to the system and e.g. Paizo’s Magus-gish-class in particular is direct competition to this book’s Archon-base-class. I’ll be looking at this book from a contemporary perspective, subsequently offering probably not the fairest of reviews. However, by the end of this review I’ll hopefully have drawn a sufficiently detailed conclusion to gauge on how well this book has aged.
That being said, after an introduction by Sean K. Reynolds we are introduced to the new classes:
The Archon is a gish-class that gets full BAB, a good will-save, non-spontaneous spellcasting (attribute INT) to up to 6th level, d10, 2+Int skills and proficiency in two martial weapons, shields and light armour sans arcane spell failure chance. It should be noted, though, that during the course of the career of this class an archon can obtain the ability to reduce spell failure chances by 5% for every 3 levels, starting and 3rd, up to 25% by 18th level. The amount of spells an Archon can master is limited, though – only a very limited selection of spells can in the end be learned by the Archon while maintaining his martial training. As a consequence of this focus, a archon obtains a kind of specialization in certain spells that are easier for him to cast. The signature ability of the archon, though, would be the rivenspell, a way to tear a spell into raw magic energy and transform it into a kind of buff: From temporary armour qualities, to haste, vigorous HP-boosts, skill-boosts and smiting you get a nice selection of rivenspell abilities to choose from. Unfortunately you only learn up to 6 of these over the course of the 20 levels. Moreover, the archon can gain the ability to hold a touch spell in his blade, delivering it via regular attacks. At higher levels, he can change his weapon damage into elemental damage of his choosing and can ignore some kinds of DR. The capstone ability enables the archon to cast a spell with casting time 1 standard action or less and make a full attack – powerful, but adequate for a capstone ability.
How does he hold up in comparison to the Magus? Surprisingly well, actually! The Archon’s focus lies more on the martial aspects, centering on self-buffing and his martial capabilities. The spells and rivenspells primarily are used to give the Archon an edge and his bad fort-save and few skill-points make sure he still has an Achilles’ heel that can be exploited. Most campaigns should have room for both and low-magic campaigns might actually be better off with the arcane knight that the Archon can be considered to be.
Next up on the class pot-pourri is the Death Mage. Clerics are the better necromancers, as we all know. But are they? The new base-class gets ¾ BAB, a good will-save and full, 4+Int skills, non-spontaneous but CHA-depending spellcasting from a limited spell-list. The Death Mage the ability to understand the languages of the dead at 2nd level – rather interesting, though depending on your campaign this might necessitate some modifications of your plots and adventures. The Death Bond ability lets the death mage either choose an unbreathing animal companion, get access to cleric domains related to death or create fetishes –these special items that can be attuned to types of enemies and which come with a plethora of cool abilities to select from and make for compelling potential adventure hooks -well-crafted idea, especially as the Death Mage can add more powers to her fetish over the course of her career. The defining ability of the class, though, has to be the path of the pale road, i.e. the Death Mage’s particular focus: Corpse Mages focus on amassing undead cohorts as a kind of personal, small army of undead servitors. Ghoul Mages are rather disgusting fellows who can eat the dead and use the ghoulish paralysis on their victims. Tomb Mages deal with black necromancy’s effects on the living, i.e. pain and fear. Reaper Mages are devoted to bring final death to the undead that roam the land. Finally, there are the shadow mages, who focus on the incorporeal shadows and shadow spells. High-level Death Mages can grant a second chance to allies who have just died and their capstone lets them resurrect an ally via 1 full round and without material components – Sweet!
How does the mistress of death hold up in comparison? Well, not too bad. While I’m usually weary of specialist arcane casters, it does a nice job of offering some unique abilities to those of you who like the idea of playing a necromancer. However, there are some minor problems I have with this class: I would have loved to see an even broader selection of fetish powers. All in all, the class is an interesting option, though I e.g. prefer specialist-class approaches along the lines of ZSP’s “Yamabushi, the sublime Transmuter”, which brings me to SGG’s fusion of arcane and divine magic, the SGG-Magus.
The SGG-Magus gets d6, 4+ Int skills, a good will-save, ½ BAB, spontaneous full spellcasting depending on CHA and a rather limited amount of spells known. At first level the SGG-magus has to choose a primary spell-list and half his known spells have to come from that respective list. The spells from the opposite kind of magic are at a higher level for the SGG-magus.
Spells from other non-full-spellcasting-classes lists are, of course also available, but might be a higher (+2) level for the SGG-Magus to cast. To further customize the class, you may choose access to domains, a sorcerous bloodline or a metamagic pool that makes using respective feats easier.
Mystic talents (2 from a list of 7) and advanced mystic talents (3 from a list of 8) also help making the magus more distinct. The number of times they can be used per day, if applicable, is associated with WIS. All things considered, I guess the SGG-magus is an ok class that blends both types of magic and balances that with a rather narrow focus. On a design perspective, I’m deeply impressed by the class, but I’m not too sure whether I’d want to build one myself – the SGG-Magus just lacks any distinct signature ability beyond his access to both spell-lists.
The next class up is the Shadow Assassin, who gets ¾ BAB, good ref-and will saves, 6+Int skills per level, d8 hit dice and no spellcasting, but a plethora of abilities, sneak attack surprisingly being not among them. Let me say flat-out that I tend to enjoy assassin-like classes, at least in theory. In practice I dislike the “study-foe-get-killing-strike”-mechanic. Why? While I do like the threat of being caught flat-footed and subsequently subject to a precise, killing hit, the assassin-PrC does not lend itself towards any kind of prolonged confrontation against enemies who succeed the manageable DC of the saving throw. The signature abilities of the shadow assassin would be his deadly focus (add WIS-modifier to atk and damage against a target) and later, greater deadly focus (double class level to damage). Beyond these tools to take out individuals, shadow assassins also get access to so-called shadow styles and shadow talents, the former being a selection of abilities somewhat similar to minor versions of ranger styles and mystical abilities associated with shadows, from special poison to enhanced agility. The latter, shadow talents, are somewhat similar to rogue talents some of which can be added to deadly focus attacks, while others e.g. grant you low-light vision, poison use etc.. Beyond these two modular selections of abilities, we also get linear ability-progressions with daggermaster (enhancing the lethality of light weapons) and shadowmeld (offering continuously improving benefits depending on controlling the shadows/lighting and leading up to a nice capstone) as well as evasion and improved evasion.) All in all, I really love the shadow assassin – it’s one of my favorite takes on an assassin who could justifiably be a useful part of an adventuring group. Nothing to complain here – The shadow assassin class is an excellent addition to just about any campaign.
The final new class is the War Master (d10, 4+Int skills, full BAB, good ref- and will saves, proficiency with all armors and martial weapons), who can be considered as a warrior-like class designed to lead, also offering tactical advantages via his signature ability “battle tactics”, which mechanically scales somewhat similar to bardic performances. The tactics can be used 4+CHA-mod rounds per day, +2 per class level after 1st. Before you start to groan and complain that you don’t want a linear progression and look for versatility/customizability, rest assured that you may choose from a selection of war master talents. The talents, not too surprisingly, center on leading other people, morale boosts, strategic planning etc. and offer some rather nice, balanced ideas. While the War Master may not be for every campaign, it’s a great, balanced class offering for a nice play-style and while not specifically built-in, I think that e.g. Kingmaker or diplomatic-heavy campaign will benefit greatly from the inclusion of this class. Well done!
This brings me to the next section of this compilation, the chapter on the feats of subterfuge, battle and spellcasting. “Armor Focus (heavy/medium)” rank among my favorite new feats, as they grant a minor form of DR to the wearers of the armors. Unfortunately I don’t have anything positive to say about some of the feats (from the subterfuge book, I gather): There is one that lets you negate attacks with acrobatics-skill-checks and one that lets you substitute ref-saves for fort or will-saves 3+Dex-bonus times per day. Unfortunately, there are some feats like this that are just plain over-powered in my humble opinion, which is a pity, as e.g. Bushwhack (use your stealth-skill to conceal allies), is a feat that has been houseruled in my campaign for quite some time.
The feats that expand upon the abilities of the new classes are nice as well and there are some gems here. With regards to the feats of spellcasting, though, I’m not that sure. While there are some feats that let you exchange damage potential for lingering effects (nice idea!), there also are some feats that give new meaning to the word clunky: There is a whole slew of feats that expand upon your spell-list and work via benefits you gain for spending marks you e.g. get for “killing enemies of CR no lower than your level-3” or “whenever you make a successful bluff check and can’t take 10”. This adds not only a new way players will try to collect marks at any cost and metagame as hell, but also expands upon the bookkeeping and is a terrible mood-breaker. All things said and done, there are some feats herein you might enjoy, but personally, I’d read them carefully indeed and wouldn’t buy the book for the feats.
The next big section of the book, the one on the new magic, is a blast to read: From acidic earth spells and new [stone]-descriptor spells to a slew of new ice magic spells, two painfully neglected sub-divisions of elemental magic get their due. Additionally, new spells for the death mage as well as spell-lists for the new spells are provided.
Finally, the book also offers us some new class-options: Ice and Earth-centered bloodlines, 2 new specialist schools (again, Ice and Earth), two new domains (Cold Iron and Ice), 4 new templates (quick arctic template, Cold Iron Elemental and Ice Elemental as well as the Ironskinned template) and a new subtype, the unbreathing subtype. It’s a shame, though, that we don’t get sample creatures for these templates.
Editing and formatting are top-notch, I noticed no significant glitches beyond the very sparse punctuation glitch. Layout adheres to the two-column standard and is very clear and easy to read. The b/w-artworks range from fair to rather unimpressive. The pdf is bookmarked, though not as extensive in the feat or spell-section as I would have liked – there is no way to jump to the individual feats/spells for quick reference. While I did like the new spells and the archon, the shadow assassin and the war leader, I was not too impressed by the Death Mage and just don’t consider the SGG-Magus sufficiently exciting to rouse my interest. The feat-section is very inconsistent in quality and offers a variety of needlessly complicated or flat-out broken feats that necessitate you as a DM scanning through the book with the utmost attention to detail before you allow them indiscriminately in your campaign. All in all, I did enjoy the book and it contains one of my most favorite classes ever. Unfortunately, it also includes some my most abhorred feats ever. It all comes down to whether you own the Ice, Earth, Shadow Assassin, Death Mage, Archon and Warmaster-pdfs: If you do, you have no reason to buy this book. The more of these, rather good ones you already own, the lesser your incentive to buy this. If you don’t own any of them, you might get quite some bang for your money and subsequently, I’m settling for a solid average score of 3 stars – Excellent books mixed with some rather average and sub-par ones, especially in the feat department.
The Adventurer’s Handbook is available from: