Review – Mystical: Kingdom of Monsters
This massive freshman offering of Northwinter Press clocks in at 194 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial 3 pages of ToC, 1 page advertisement, 2 pages of credits/KS-thanks, 1 page back cover, leaving us with a massive 185 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
So what is this book? In one sentence: Pokémon for Pathfinder. As such, the book begins with a pretty concise introduction to be then supplemented by easy to grasp fast-play rules – but the main meat, the nexus of this book if you will, would be the new Monster Trainer base class. These guys can see the aura of a monster, which allows them to determine whether they can capture a given monster.
Mechanics-wise, the monster trainer gets d8, 6+Int skills per level, proficiency with simple weapons, all bows and the whip as well as light armor and they may cast trainer spells while wearing light armor sans spell failure chance. Spells? Yes, and this would be one of the mechanically most interesting features of the class: While monster trainers cast Cha-based arcane spells like a sorceror, of up to 9th level, they can only cast spells granted by their active monster and only if the trainer is high enough a level to cast the spell. The class also gets 3/4 BAB-progression and good Ref- and Will-saves, though the table annoyingly is missing the plusses for the saves. Additionally, each monster trainer may cast the capture monster spell at will and begins play with one monster already caught. This spell is crucial for the functionality of the class, so let me give you the details: It has a casting time of 1 standard action, a close range and targets one monster. The cantrip can be resisted via a Will-save, which is modified in the following manner: Monsters above 1/2 of their hit points receive a +5 bonus, +2 when above one quarter of the monster’s hit points and SR, if applicable, applies. Monsters already captured cannot be captured again (no monster theft) and, as mentioned before, monsters with a CR higher than the monster trainer’s class level cannot be caught. Mindless monsters cannot be captured and any monster with class levels is immune to being captured.
From the get-go, this makes me question a couple of things – one: What’s the in-game rationale for monsters sans class levels not being able to be captured? I’d *really* need a reason, for if indentured slavery BEYOND DEATH to those pesky humanoids is all they can look forward to, I couldn’t imagine a single intelligent monster NOT going for a class level as soon as possible. While the CR-limit is thankfully more precise than one based on HD, it does leave you with an issue: Templates. Do templates influence the monster caught in any way beyond the CR? You see, I can name, from the top of my head, multiple templates intended to create a puzzle adversary that can’t simply be slain – one such creature alone can make the monster trainer very nasty. What about templates that reduce the CR?
Deploying monsters in combat is, rules-wise, inspired by drawing weapons – you need a move action to call a monster, but do not require the BAB +1 prerequisite to do so. Monsters thus called have a movement left equal to your own before calling them, which is a bit odd, considering different movement speeds and modes. Conversely, monster trainers with a BAB of at least +1 and the Quick Draw feat can conjure forth a monster as a free action instead.
The unfortunate truth, however, is that the monster trainer suffers from issues in its rules-language in its very base ability: “Calling upon a monster is a strenuous act that prevents an inexperienced monster trainer from calling upon more than one while in combat.” – this is a non-mechanic of a restriction. Since monsters called forth have no duration per se, a monster trainer can simply call all of them prior to a battle, so that can’t be the reason. Slight on the fly flexibility can also be a reason for this, but ultimately, neither does in any way change the problem that stems from the arbitrarily defined, fluid time-frame that does not differentiate between massive large-scale battles and one-round skirmishes – why not opt for a elegant, precisely defined time-frame? Or the solution championed in Dreamscarred Press’ Path of War, which assumes a non-combat, fixed time-frame as basis for per-encounter mechanics?
On the plus-side, much like Interjection Games’ excellent tinker class, the monster trainer does not suffer from the power-boost granted by the monsters, at least not too much, since, apart from the aforementioned first move, the monsters have to be directed by the monster trainer, with e.g. a swift action requiring the expenditure of a swift action on behalf of the monster trainer, etc. This does leave me with a question – if a monster and a monster trainer have an ability and a monster can use it as e.g. a free action, while the monster trainer would require a standard action to activate the ability – which is it? If one of them has more actions due to spells, buffs, etc., does that extend to the other creature/character? A further issue would pertain to line of sight and effect – does the monster hunter need to be able to communicate with the monster in any way? Does it have to have line of sight/effect to its trainer? What if the monster trainer’s muted or can’t order the monster due to being paralyzed? Can he still expend an action? Can he only make the monster perform mental-only actions in such a case? What if the monster can see something the monster trainer can’t, perhaps due to senses being different? Yes, 5th level grants the monster’s senses to the monster trainer, but I’m not sure whether they see what the other sees – can a monster use the monster trainer’s line of sight/effect and vice versa or not? I have no friggin’ clue.
The monster trainer’s spells benefit from Eschew Materials and the monster trainer has an aura of his choosing that renders alignment-detection pretty hard. Once a monster trainer has caught a monster of a particular type, he gains +2 to Bluff, Knowledge, Perception, Sense Motive and Survival checks against all creatures of that type as well as +2 to atk and damage AND the option to make untrained Knowledge Checks to identify said creatures. 3rd level adds a better starting attitude for such creatures, which, combined with the Cha-dependant abilities means that the monster trainer ultimately is a good face for the group.
If all of this does sound nasty, then rest assured that there is something offsetting this: Namely, the fact that monsters do not level with you like e.g. eidolons, cohorts or animal companions. (such class-specific creatures btw. are not explicitly exempt from being caught as monsters, which constitutes yet another oversight… gaze upon my menagerie of eidolons…). Oh, and don’t get me started with whether calling or summoning effects and how they’re supposed to work in that context. However, when a monster trainer gains a level, he may improve one of his monsters via monster growth (more on that later) and thus keep it relevant – think of this as something akin to how Pikachu remained relevant for Ash, in spite of its mechanical shortcomings.
At 2nd level and every even trainer level, the monster trainer receives spell familiarity, which allows the trainer to choose a spell granted by a caught monster and cast it, regardless of whether the appropriate monster is active or not. 3rd level unlocks commands to let the monster trainer command monsters to use SPs, 7th unlocks SUs and 11th unlocks EXs -curses, diseases and poisons are exempt – and yes, in spite of the wording here being more nebulous than it ought to be, the abilities are actually shared between monster and monster trainer, including shared cool-down periods. This ability is per se extremely interesting, but its crunch, even after copious revisions, remains pretty much problematic – “Self only abilities on a monster can only be used by the monster and only when it is active.” Does that extend to SPs of spells with a range or personal or not? If a monster has a constant or permanent ability that it can share with the monster trainer, does it only work while the monster is active?
The frustrating thing here is that the pdf feels like it is hell-bent on sabotaging the hell out of itself – “At 4th level, 19th level and every 4 levels between, the trainer gets a perk..” – ever saw a wording this non-standard and worse, ambiguous? While a glimpse at the table clears up confusion, you could count either from 4th up or from 19th down as per this book’s language. Why? Seriously, it’s a “here are your class talents, select them at these levels type of ability text” – literally like almost EVERY class nowadays has…and it doesn’t manage to get the ability phrased in a way that’s not this ambiguous? Come on – the fact that you made such a complex class in the first place does show that you ought to know better! Speaking of ability-related failures in the rules-language: The class constantly fails to properly codify its abilities according to the EX, SP, SU-axis – no idea whether monsters called forth can be dispelled or suppressed in dead-magic zones like the Mana Wastes.
Among the talents, we get an annoyingly meta-gamey one that allows for skills to tell you the HP of monsters (and don’t get me started for the half/quarter HP issues – if a monster e.g. gets temporary hit points that would alleviate it over the bonus granting threshold of the cantrip, would the bonuses still apply? Why does the GM have to manage these arbitrary thresholds?) Speaking of which, if the above was not ample clue: Heightened Spell is pretty much a must-have, as is any race that can push the DC of the save for the cantrip, constituting a feat-tax you should be aware of – and no, this does not help make the math for catching monsters work at higher levels – and forget about rules for the downtime catching of monsters. Yes, this may mean annoying trips through random encounters when a player particularly wants a specific monster – something the GM then will have to comply with…or watch as the other players are annoyed by the hunter failing, yet again, to capture critter xyz.
The perks allow for the scavenging in supernatural/extraordinary abilities of monsters even while they’re not active and designate a monster as a familiar at -3 levels. The list not only allows for evasion and its improved companion, it also features a pet-peeve of mine, the loathed mettle ability (evasion for Fort- and Will-saves – at 2nd level!!!). Urgh. Higher level monster trainers can choose a monster to channel, which is chosen upon resting: They may access said creature’s SPs even while the monster is not active. Know how problematic this book is? Let’s take a look at great trainer: “A 9th level monster trainer gains a +2 bonus to capture monsters from the continued use of the spell.” Come again? Since when does the cantrip require an attack? That definitely should be a bonus to the cantrip’s DC and botching an ability this simple is, I’m sorry to say it, just sloppy.
On the plus-side, in contrast to a previous iteration of this book (you don’t want to know how many times I rage-quit this review over the courses of the book’s iterations, each time hoping hard that it would become as awesome as the concept deserves…), the book prevents the monster meat-shield exploit: The monster trainer takes the damage a monster has taken upon dismissing the monster – and yes, this means that it’s pretty likely you can die this way, unless your GM allows for metagamey “Your monster has X HP info-dumps.” 15th level allows for the exchange of “an active monster for another he has captured during battle.” – here, the sloppy per battle wording comes full circle to bite the class in the proverbial behind – does this refer to a monster caught in this specific battle or can it also be used on a monster caught in a previous battle? No idea, though I *guess* it’s the former, noting the transfer of hit point damage to the new creature being a possibility. At 17th level, when the math gives up regarding saves and cantrips, monster hunters can simply choose to catch a creature sans save or SR once – plus one time every level beyond 17th. 20th level allows for a kind of monster apotheosis 3/day, with the caveat of this working only for monster he has caught – pretty lame and weak for 20th level.
A total of 6 archetypes are provided – the monster auror is broken as hell: When subject to a spell by a monster, he automatically learns it and even when not, he can make a level-based check to learn a creature’s spell. It suffers from similar issues as the trainer, only exacerbated since it does not nearly pay enough for this power. Monster Breeder replace spell familiarity and channel monster with either an animal companion or familiar – which btw. brings me to YET ANOTEHR issue – how do animal intelligence monsters interact with the monster hunter? Do they still need to be taught tricks? The archetype also provides significant atk bonuses (and less significant ones to damage and AC) to monsters below his CR – yes, this means he’s pretty much glass-cannoning via his pets. It is btw. here that templates are mentioned in a side-box as an optional rule – and yes, I have consciously omitted this information from the above. Why? Because that crucial information should not be in an archetype’s sidebar…
Monster Gamblers or their active monsters can take up to -5 to a single d20-roll as a free action and grant it as a bonus to the other or use it themselves to the next attempt to perform such an action. Awesome! Attack a kitten, store +5 atk and damage and not even kill the kitten! Better yet, throw a cantrip with save harmless at the archetype for a stored +5 bonus. No duration, no scaling, just begs to be abused. The archetype also gets sneak attack , but at this point, I don’t care anymore. Next. Monster Performers get limited spells (only up to 6th level) and bardic performance that can be maintained by the creature…which is pretty lame, considering that there are creatures that can duplicate such effects sans paying the price. Monster researcher get no proficiencies and d6, but better skill-checks and channel monster. Oh, and they get bonus feats like Augment Summoning…and at this point, I realized that we have no idea whether “drawing” monsters counts as a summoning effect and can thus be limited by anti-summoning options… *sigh*
Monster scouts would be the d10 martial monster trainers with 4 levels of spells and Monster Companion as a bonus feat at first level, while also gaining smite monster at 2nd level.
Next, we have a massive list of trainer spells by level as well as new ones – like Battlefield Adept, which grants you Dodge, Mobility and Spring Attack for while it lasts and it has this cryptic note: “If you can cast Battlefield Adept without preparing it first, you can learn feats with Dodge, Mobility, or Spring Attack as a prerequisite. Those feats can only be used while the spell lasts.” Note something? Yes, any further prerequisites are ignored, meaning that any feat that has any of these in the prereqs suddenly turned wildcard. And yes, I understand how this is supposed to work, providing a spell-centric alternate and limited prereq-option…but this is still horribly flawed.
Oh, level 1 touch attack-based no-save blindness that requires a standard action to clear allows for the blind-locking of BBEGs while the group makes mincemeat out of them…and since casting time is one swift action, you can also whittle away. Yes, the spells suffer from problems.
Is there something positive to say here? Yes, there is: The pdf does sport a toolkit for making regular monsters into monstorin as a race, i.e. Pokémon-like creatures. While certainly not perfect, it does do its job surprisingly well and provides such stats, handily, for each of the monsters – and yes, this book is chock-full with them. The vast array of them and their available spells granted to monster trainers is interesting and while some monstorin end up as lopsided on the physical or mental attribute side, the respective entries do sport some nice ideas and a vast array of downright cuddly Pokémon-style artworks that help visualize the creatures featured. How much of them are here? More 122 pages. Yes, the horribly flawed mess I was complaining about only spanned 21 pages. As jarring and annoying as the former chapter was, as nice and useful is this one and, let me emphasize that, it almost feels like it comes from a different book.
The third chapter then provides more supplemental material regarding monster training: For example, there are feats for non monster trainer characters…like this one: “If your eidolon models a monster that would grant spells to a monster trainer, you gain access to those spells. Add the eidolon’s spells to your spells known as long as it models the chosen monster, is alive, and is available to you. Spells that are not ordinarily on your class’s spell list count as 1 spell level higher for the purpose of this feat.” An eidolon doesn’t “model” anything. Does it need to look cosmetically like the monster? What does it need to do to qualify for free spells, which may even belong to different spell lists? This shows an ignorance on how the summoner rules work. Monstrous Cohort also deserves mention: “You can now recruit a monster as a cohort. The monster’s effective level is equal to its CR.”
Okay, do you get the spells? The abilities? Does it stack with companions and active monsters? Is it autonomous? Does it need to be taught tricks if none too bright? I’m so tired of this right now, I’m not even going to dignify pointing out all the ways in which this feat makes no sense and leave it at the base: This feat does nothing. Monsters, like all creatures, can be taken as a cohort and there is nothing in the vanilla rules preventing that. This level of issues extend to everything herein…apart from the monster statblocks…and the final section of the book, which provides an all too brief glimpse at the eponymous kingdom of monsters, alongside random monster tables for respective environments – and the writing here is really nice. The level of passion that went into this is also mirrored by the copious indices: Monsters by CR, by spell granted and even those not covered in the book provide page upon page of handy information.
Editing and formatting aren’t bad on a formal level. On the level of rules-language, this book, there’s no way around it, FAILS. Layout adheres to a per se nice two-column full-color standard that remains pretty printer-friendly and the child-friendly Pokémon-style artworks of the monsters are neat and inspiring if you enjoy the aesthetics – I certainly liked them. The book comes with excessive bookmarks for your convenience.
Damn, I HATE writing reviews like this; In fact, the reason why this review was delayed time and again, was due to the authors tinkering with the book, updating it and improving it – or so I noted via update e-mails. I really, really commend this level of commitment and passion for one’s material and I so hoped I’d be able to write something positive here and reward this level of service.
You see, while I never was too much into Pokémon, I REALLY wanted the rules here to work – as a huge fanboy of the Shin Megami Tensei franchise and the superb Lucifer’s Call game in particular, I’ve been waiting for a good “recruit foes”-class for ages. The frustrating thing is – this could have gotten it right. The monster trainer does look strong on paper, but is in basic playtest very MAD…the issue being that a truly meaningful playtest with this class is impossible at this point. Why? Because the class requires a huge amount of DM-calls to work. See the never-ending list of questions and complaints above? That’s not even half of what came up.
And yes, the revisions have improved this book…but not by enough to make the class even remotely functional sans copious DM-calls. In one sentence: The rules-language is horrible. That is if you’re using the normal rules. Use the fast play rules and the precise engine that is pathfinder comes crumbling down in the realm of GM-fiats. This is the single most imprecise class I’ve read in a while and it simply does not work…and this frustrates me to no end. Why? Because I can make it run. So can expert (and I MEAN expert!) developers and designers – I can see crunch-wizards salvaging this one and having a blast with it since the complex framework, in all aspects ALMOST works – but the lack of proper development and the at times downright sloppy rules-language undermine the very foundation upon which this whole book is built, never mind the issues with other classes and rules.
At the same time, though, the indices and monsters provided are pretty awesome and something that bespeaks the passion that Malcolm Northwinter has put into this book…and similarly, the campaign setting information, brief though it may be, is nice.
So, how to rate this? See, that’s difficult: The monster-section is pretty cool and takes up the majority of the book and thus should have a more pronounced influence on the rating…but its usefulness as intended is based on a rules-foundation that is horribly flawed in several objectively bad ways, requiring more GM fiat than any other class for PFRPG I know, while the rules-aspects of the editing job are simply insufficient to run most classes, much less one this complex. Worse, that’s before the MAD comes into play and objective balance-concerns stemming from the opacity of the rules-language of the class enter the equation.
Damn, I hate being this guy…but I have to tell you: Each iteration of this book’s rules made me rage-quit at least once and I hoped that this final one wouldn’t. It did. More than once. It really was a heart-rending experience to see this almost get it right and then botch it so hard.
Even if I take into account the freshman offering bonus, I can’t rate this for the monsters alone, but have to rate it for its intent, which is making a Pokémon-ish setting/gameplay available – and here, the book objectively fails. It fails even harder for kids. Yes, I playtested that with kids who were really into the concept…and failed to grasp the opaque rules, mirroring my rage-quit in one case…and we’re talking about kids that know Pathfinder and have no issue with complex classes like e.g. those in Akashic Mysteries – you don’t want to see that 10 year-old’s Guru…ouch!
How to rate this? Well, let me reiterate: This one, were it not for the cool monsters and the nice setting information, would get a really bad bashing. As written, it is so flawed I can’t even recommend it as a mixed bag to any but the most experienced of GMs willing to spend a LOT of time essentially doing the development work for the Monster Trainer: Codifying rules language, including answers to all those issues. You may get some mileage out of this…but still, the fact remains that this is an exceedingly flawed, problematic book – as much as I like the concepts, I cannot go higher than 2 stars, even with the freshman offering bonus.