Ultimate Combat is the most recent release by Paizo for their Pathfinder RPG line and in a manner similar to their previous entry, Ultimate Magic, introduces a bunch of new options to your Pathfinder campaign.
Unfortunately, not all of those options are hits. Some are outright misses.
The book opens up well enough. The Gunslinger class seems very cool if very Wild West flavored, which may not fit some campaign worlds and is by far my favorite of the new classes introduced. As they level up, they gain additional “deeds” which are fancy gun tricks they can pull off if they can pay the cost of the Deed with their Grit points. Examples of Deeds include targeting touch AC instead of normal AC or dodging ranged attacks.
There are two “alternate classes” in the book as well: ninja (rogue alternate class) and samurai (cavalier alternate class). Why alternate classes instead of archetypes? Because, rather than being just modifying a few abilities these classes replace the entire class structure of their “parent” class.
So, why not make the ninja and the samurai their own, separate base class? I’m not quite sure, other than the fact that you can’t take levels in the “parent” class if you’re following one of these alternate classes. That may be a good thing for balance, though it just seems like a somewhat awkward setup and, really, other than that one fact there’s not a difference in the way these classes are handled in game.
There are also new archetypes for Alchemists, Barbarians, Bards, Cavaliers, Clerics, Druids, Fighters, Gunslingers, Inquistors, Magi, Monks, Paladins, Rangers, Rogues and Wizards as well as a handful of class ability options for Alchemists, Barbarians, Cavaliers, Inquisitors, Magi and Rogues (lots of new options for rogues).
The Archetypes themselves are all pretty cool, and I didn’t see any that I didn’t like. For example, the Ragechemist (for alchemists) has a Jekyll and Hyde feel to it, while my favorite archetype is the Spellslinger for wizards, which allow them to perform an arcane bond with guns. I believe the Spellslinger was once called the Gunmage. Some of the archetypes make some fairly complicated changes to their base class.
Rogues make out like bandit (sorry…) in this section. They have a bunch of new Rogue Talents, though some of the talents definitely step on the toes of other classes, for example Ki Pool and Ninja Trick. I’m not sure I like letting rogues take others’ tricks as it makes an already attractive class even more attractive. Oh, and finally we get a Pirate archetype for rogues.
The book then moves to the second chapter, which is all about feats. Feats, feats and more feats.
One category of feats, style feats, gets a fairly extensive writeup in the “types of feats” section. Effectively, it lists a bunch of different martial arts styles such as Crane Style or Djinni Style and gives a description of the style itself and a list of which 3 feats make up that style.
The feats overall look good, with some painful sounding feats such as Jawbreaker. There are several Grit feats as well which work for both the Gunslinger and anyone with the Amateur Gunslinger feat. Unfortunately, there are also a pretty large selection of Teamwork feats here, which I have never seen taken in-game. Several feats, likewise, enhance “performance combat” (which I’ll get to in a bit) and probably aren’t going to see much use either unless you are running a certain type of campaign.
After the feats, we move on to the chapter on “mastering combat.” No, this isn’t a section for the game master, it’s just a section to hold some new toys. Included in this section are Eastern armor and weapons (finally, war fans!), complete firearms rules, gladiator weapons, primitive weapons, duels, performance combat and siege engine rules.
The rules here all seem solid and well-written. If you like new weapons, like me, there’s plenty to choose from in this chapter. The firearms section includes both early firearms as well as advanced firearms such as revolvers and shotguns. There’s even a selection of firearms gear and magical firearms and, yes, alchemical bullets. The gladiator weapons all have the new “performance” quality, which grants a bonus in performance combat. Not only does the primitive weapons section include stats for weapons such as atlatls, but also includes a few new materials from which to forge weapons and armor as well as the associated rules that go along with the new materials such as bone and gold.
The dueling rules look pretty cool and include rules for countering and dodging attacks. There are even information for using magic in such duels. I really want to try to use these rules in game.
If you’ve got a campaign that involves gladiatorial combat, then the section on performance combat is for you. These combats involve chances to make checks called “Performance Combat Checks” to sway the crowd watching the combat in your direction when certain situations come up. As a result, performance combat tends to be more showy than normal combat and, as a result, often less deadly. By successfully swaying the crowd in your favor, you garner Victory Points. At the end of the combat, the side with the most Victory Points wins.
The next chapter focuses on vehicles. Finally, we get complete rules for vehicles. This isn’t just a few paragraphs, but rather 10 full pages. These rules definitely add a layer of complexity to the game, including the fact that a vehicle’s facing is important (unlike that of a character). I haven’t run through a scenario with both non-vehicular combatants and vehicles using the new rules, but I can imagine that it would get a little complicated. I’m not sure this layer of complexity is necessarily a good thing. Finally, the chapter ends with several vehicle statistics, including airships.
Chapter 5 deals with Variant Rules and, aside from the gunslinger class and gunmage/spellslinger archetype, was what I was looking forward to most in this book. Unfortunately, this chapter is almost all fail.
The rules for armor as damage reduction turns your AC into Defense and is such a low number that, unless you’re a Dex master, you’re going to be getting hit a lot. There are no class bonuses to Defense, nor do the attack roll numbers for monsters (or PCs) change any. Sure, you’re going to get to negate some of the damage you take, but it still makes it feel rather unsatisfactory.
The section on called shots is the diamond amid the coal in this chapter. You take a penalty to hit an area and, if you succeed, you get a bonus of some sort depending on whether it was a normal hit, a critical hit or a “debilitating blow.” Unfortunately, my group seemed rather “meh” on these rules.
Speaking of “meh,” that’s how I felt about the section on piecemail armor. I think it adds a little too much complexity without enough of a return. My players seemed to feel rather “meh” about this as well.
Wound and Vigor points are an interesting concept that has been tried several times in various ways in different 3.x D&D incarnations but here they feel like something I’m not sure I’d want to include in my campaign. Vigor points are randomly rolled, while wound points are equal to 2x your Con score. That’s a lot of wound points. It just sounds like it would make combat drag on, quite possibly to 4th edition levels of grinding. (Disclaimer: I’m not anti-4e. I quite liked 4e, but even I have to admit that the combat, as written, grinds on and on).
The next chapter has a bunch of new spells, some of which of course go hand in hand with the new firearms rules. It’s a pretty standard set of spells, save for two types.
“Admixture” spells for alchemists add additional effects to their bombs. For example, Caging Bomb Admixture modifies a bomb so that it has normal effects as well as creates a cubical prison of force around the main target of the bomb. Nifty!
However, my favorite new type of spell are the “Communal” spells. They act just like normal spells, but allow you to divide the duration of the spell up between any number of targets. So, for example, Communal Air Walk allows you to divide the duration in 10-minute intervals among the creatures touched. I love this concept.
The book wraps with a chart that includes all the new weapons in the book listed in one chart and an index (and, of course, the OGL).
The art in the book is up to Paizo’s high standards and you can definitely tell the gunslingers (hint: they’re the ones dressed like cowboys).
Overall, I give the book about a 3 out of 5. I liked much of the book, but there are sections I thought fell flat. Maybe I expected too much, or maybe I was wanting something as cool as Ultimate Magic.