Let's start with the obvious: there's a calikang on the cover of this module. I've loved this monster since I first saw it in the Inner Sea World Guide, so I'm always happy to see it getting some press. Sajan and Jirelle look like they will get the best of it. It's interesting that Sajan is holding a weapon. One of the book's later sections goes to great pains to remind us that unarmed combat is melee combat as well, so I would have liked to have seen him fighting unarmed. Calikangs don't have any damage resistance, so a good flurry of blows (unchained or core) would be a great attack on one of these beasts.
But that's imputing game design on art. Art's job is too look cool. And while I think it might have been fun to have Sajan flurrying away on the calikang, he and Jirelle (who I hope has some sneak attack damage coming, swashbuckler or no) look like the bad asses they are taking on this hulk. In fact, much of the book's art is really good. It's not an action scene, but page sixteen illustrates all the various swords that exist in the game. It's very cool and helpful--the best quality in a gaming aide. Page 27 also has a good picture of Lini holding what appears to be a spell siphoning sickle and ready to make trouble for anybody messing with her.
Cover to Cover
Art is done! On to content! Let's start with the inside covers, which come out as a wash. On the front inside cover are short single paragraph descriptions of fighting schools in Brevoy, Lastwall, Katapesh, and Absalom. The art attached is map-related and non-specific. With the exception of the Tempering Hall, a warrior training academy on the Isle of Kortos specializing in training Iomedean Paladins but accepting all righteous warriors, all of these are better detailed on pages 18-27 of Inner Sea Combat. I don't object to rehashing old content, but doing so ought to involve fleshing it out rather than abbreviating it.
Fortunately, the back inside cover more than makes up for its partner's failing. The back cover has a "Combat Options Overview." And it's awesome. It's not the coolest thing in this book, but it is the page that will be most useful to the largest number of people. Okay, Boyd, so you like it. What's in it? First, they list just about every melee combat action a character can take, including ones from the hardback line like the Advanced Player's Guide. Each action is followed by a column for "type" and for "action." Type explains if the action is basic (anyone can do it), a combat maneuver, or if it requires a feat. Next, the opposite column gives the types of actions: attack, free, melee, standard, full-round, and swift. This is awesome! Seriously, if Paizo wanted to make this page a single page PDF and sell it for something like $0.99, they could!
To the Meat!
The book is designed to cover melee combat writ large, but it specifically calls out Bloodragers, Cavaliers, Fighters, and Rogues as the classes that will get the most out of the book. That said, there's something for everyone. There's an archetype for each called out class, but here are also 16 combat feats, 4 general fights, 2 new fighting styles with three feats each, and 4 teamwork feats. There's also an explanation of feats on page 5 that details every type of feat and what that feat category means. Super useful for the novice to intermediate player. There are also new weapon and armor special abilities; bardic masterpieces; magic armors, weapons, and items; mundane equipment; and (gasp!) even a couple pages of spells.
Different Types of Melee Combat
Early on, the book reminds us that "there’s much more to melee combat than weapon choice. Armor-wearing combatants must balance protection and mobility. A high Strength score is crucial to many melee attack builds, but it’s also possible to build an effective melee combatant by focusing on Dexterity." This introductory advice is followed by two page spreads on up close armed combat, defensive melee fighting, mass combat, unarmed combat, and stuff useful for unexpected combat situations. Let's take a brief look at each:
Close quarters fighting: this section, like the others, begins with basic advice for this type of fighting. It would be interesting to go and compare this advice with the advice for new players in the Strategy Guide. I'm guessing some overlap, but there's much more here! There are three interesting feats here, one of which I'd consider for my PFS fighter.
· Artful Dodge (Combat) gives an extra +1 dodge bonus to AC when the feat-holder is the only person threatening an enemy. Unlike Dodge, which requires Dex 13, Artful Dodge is keyed to Int 13 as a prerequisite. Additionally, it doubles as Dodge for fulfilling the prerequisite of any other feat.
· Press to the Wall (Combat) allows you to count objects like trees and walls as allies for the purposes of flanking. It only works when the feat-holder is the only person threatening the enemy and requires both Step Up and BAB +3, but it's still a solid feat for a PC to take.
· Steadfast Slayer (Combat) provides that when the feat-holder using a two-handed weapon and is the only person threatening and opponent larger than them, the feat-holder gains a +2 bonus on melee damage.
· Other feats in this section: Circling Mongoose(Combat), Heroic Leader (Combat), Mirror Move (Combat), and Redirect Attack(Combat).
Defensive Combat: more feats and an archetype!
· Armored Athlete (combat) is for those fighters who are tired of failing armor checks or those rogues that want just a teensy bit better armor. Choose a single Str- or Dex-based skill in which you've got at least three ranks. You reduce your armor penalty for using that skill by 3. If you've got 10 or more ranks, the penalty is reduced by 6. Finally, classes with armor training 2 (aka fighter 7 or higher) can use this with heavy armor too. Great feat!
· Just Out of Reach (combat) gives characters a +4 dodge bonus to AC when attacked by someone more than 5 feat away using reach. Unclear if this applies only to reach weapons or if it also applies to creatures with a natural reach, like large and larger creatures. Downside is that the feat requires both Dodge and Mobility as prerequisites.
· Other feat: Leaping Evasion
· Castellan (Cavalier archetype): Castellans manage castles, though this is more of a generic urban defender class. You get some sweet bonuses when defending or fighting in urban areas. All in all, it's a useful archetype. But, it breaks the archetype theme and goes back to the generic cavalier theme with its "Guard Companion" animal companion granted at level 4 (companion functions as Druid level -4)
Mass Melee: This section provides support for when all Hell breaks loose. There's going to be at least one if these fights in every campaign (and likely in every PFS scenario), so read up on the very useful general tactics before considering the feats, the bardic masterpiece, and the drill sergeant fighter archetype.
· Feats included: Got Your Back (Combat,Teamwork), Harrying Partners (Combat, Teamwork), Open Up (Combat, Teamwork), Phalanx Formation (Combat), and Stick Together (Combat, Teamwork)
· Bardic Masterpiece "Battle Song of thePeople's Revolt" is flavored to be like the drum and woodwind military songs of the American Revolution, though it's Andoran here. With 4 ranks in Perform (percussion) or (wind) he bard trades in a feat or spell known to pick up this masterpiece which uses a single bardic performance round per round, costs only a standard action to initiate, and is subject to Lingering Performance. When the masterpiece is chosen, the bard selects a single Teamwork feat. Whenever the bard uses the masterpiece after that, all allies within 30 feet who are affected can that Teamwork feat. Finally, Paizo, you have found a way to make Teamwork feats useful for one more class!
· Drill Sergeant (Fighter archetype) is an Advanced Class Guide-type class that mixes the fighter with the cavalier. I like it too. The drill sergeant loses bravery in exchange for getting the cavalier tactician class feature. Weapon training does happen, but only for one group (still advances though), he picks up the greater tactician feature at 9th level and at 13th level, all allies within 30 feet using weapons from the same weapon group get half the drill sergeant's weapon training bonus. Finally, at 17th level, the drill sergeant picks up the master tactician class feature.
Unarmed Combat: gives tactical advice for both those that choose to fight unarmed and those who lose a weapon. If you've thought your way through these issues, questionable how much you'll learn in this section. If you haven't, this is worth a read. This section also gives us two fighting styles with three feats each and a bloodrager archetype:
· Cudgeler [sp] Style: focuses on dealing non-lethal damage. I like this feat, especially for those rare games where there are real consequences for killing guards and the like.
· Kraken style: grappling style with emphasis on crushing an opponent. Seriously causes harm to people once you've grappled them. A Kraken Style brawler would be a terror to fight against...so let's make one to fight some PCs. By seventh level, a monk with this entire feat tree can deal 1d6+Str bonus + Wis bonus + 4 per turn just for maintaining a grapple. That's likely at least 10 damage and on average closer to 13.
· Bloody-Knuckled Rowdy (Bloodrager archetype): loses DR, gets one fewer spell known at each level, and loses fast movement in exchange for Improved Unarmed Strike. Trades out uncanny dodge and improved uncanny dodge for bonus style feat at 2nd level and Combat Style Master(UC) at 5th level. Finally, deals unarmed strike damage as a monk equal to bloodrager level -2.
Unexpected Fighting: again has some good tactics I'm not going to spoil. Also 9 more feats and a rogue archetype:
· Aquatic Spell (Metamagic): Spell functions normally underwater but casts as one level higher
· Deadly Grappler (Combat): When you're grappled, most non-heavy weapons deal damage against one you're grappling with as if one size larger.
· Grappled Caster: Gain +4 on concentration checks when grappled. Stacks with Combat Casting.
· One Eye Open: DCs for your Perception checks don't increase just because you are asleep. Never be surprised even if you fall asleep on watch ever again!
· Reactive Arcane Shield: immediate action to activate Arcane Shield now occurs before attack roll against you is resolved. All adjacent allies also gain shield's deflection bonus to AC for one round.
· Other feats: Aquatic Combatant (Combat), Explosive Escape (Combat), Juke (Combat), Shrug On (Combat)
· Makeshift Scrapper (Rogue archetype): interesting archetype built off idea of getting Catch Off-Guard and Throw Anything as bonus feats. Could be fun to mix with monk in multiclass.
I am gonna give one example of the good, break down the math and the tactics advice in this book. From page 18, introducing new melee weapons, "A wide threat range results in more frequent critical hits, which is especially useful when facing multiple weaker opponents or if you have critical feats or abilities that trigger on critical hits. A high multiplier is better when facing fewer, more powerful opponents, as the additional damage is more effective against damage reduction and useful for abilities that trigger when you drop a foe, such as Cleaving Finish (UC)."
New weapons including the machete and the manople. I wish I'd had the machete, which grants a +1 on Survival checks to get along in the wild in addition to damage, when I ran Souls for Smuggler's Shiv. My players would have found one early on. The manople basically let's you be Wolverine and it's only a matter of time before someone makes a retractable set as a magic item. The book also places them in fighter weapon training groups.
Next come some interesting, thoughnon-magical, items. First is the acrobat's pillar (50gp, 40 lbs.). The pillar is basically a tall pole with waving wooden arms that you try and dodge for practice. It's standard kit in the doorway to a room full of training ninjas trope and no heroes headquarters is complete without it. Mechanically, if you practice against its waving arms for an hour and succeed on a DC 20 Acrobatics check, you get a 24-hour +2 bonus to Acrobatics checks for avoiding attacks of opportunity for moving into & out of opponents' threatened squares. That's quite a bonus! Don't forget the waster (1 gp, weight varies), an extra-heavy training weapon that gives characters that successfully train with it a bonus to CMD.
Next up we have the exemplar weapon salve (350 gp, 1 lb.). Turns a normal weapon into a masterwork weapon. This is some cool treasure to give out at low instead of the ever-expected masterwork weapons used by hostile NPCs.
The melee contingency kit (150 gp, 14 lbs.) has a little of everything you might. We'd to take on a monster with type of DR. There's cold iron, silver, acid, alchemists fire, and holy water in there. Other items include: armor truss, bounty hunter's kit (common & superior), handle harness, quickcatch manacles, a rockshard canister, shield bosses (reinforcing, breakaway, hooked, illuminating, and masterwork), sunder block, and surefoot training blocks.
Man the Battlements!
Of course, a lot of melee combat is defense and that's why we get new magic armor qualities and new magic armors! Let's start with the armor qualities:
· Channeling: keyed to positive or negative energy. Wearer reduces damage from other type of energy channeled by 10. If the wearer can channel the type or energy paired to the armor, three times per day can increase dice rolled on a channel by 1. (Cost: +18,000 gp)
· Evolving: Before I even write this, there's a big ole X on this entry on my notes copy. And now I see why, it's related to summoner eidolons. Basically, once per day on command, armor fuses into wearer and for 30 minutes grants some eidolon evolutions. Summonses are the devil so no. (Cost: +1)
· Frosted: I like the flavor here. Too often we focus on mechanics to flavor's detriment. These armors are coated in thin layer of frost and shimmer faintly with bluish-white hue. Gives +4 bonus to CMD and inflicts 1d8 cold damage to hose who constrict, pin, or swallow the wearer. (Cost: +2)
· Singing: shield only allows to sing for up to 10 rounds once a day to function like bard's countersong ability. I'm pretty meh on this one. (Cost: +1)
· Volcanic: Always save the best for last. Heavy armor only and gives off soft red glow. Once per day wearer can make it erupt, with liquid Fire (1d6 damage) and smoke (concealment) affecting all adjacent squares. One round later, all 9 squares turn to difficult terrain. My dwarven foe hammer needs this in PFS. (Cost: +2--that's a steal!)
This review is getting long, so here are a few notes on magic armors. Armor of the Sands has cool flavor and good abilities--especially for a rogue that might end up in melee combat. The elephantshield is a shield fighter's dream. The gelugon armor adds an attack. (What's a gelugon? I need to look that one up!). All barbarians lust after the Mammoth hide and the wizard's mail is the magic armor that finally broke the game. Our only salvation is that people who love to optimize caster's are unlikely to look in a book about melee fighters. Hidden in plain sight!
You wanna fight me with that?
Weapon special abilities:
· Culling: only on melee slashing weapons. Deals +2d6 damage on initial Cleave attack as well as any extras that you get. (Cost: +2)
· Growing: once per day, item functions as if one size larger but without penalties for using larger sized item. (Cost: +1)
· Shrinking: with command word shrinks to size of small dagger so can be more easily snuck around. (Cost: +1,000 gp)
· Smashing: does extra 2d6 damage to inanimate objects, includes sundering. (Cost: +1 bonus)
· Spell Siphon: steals one or more buffs from its targets if forego a critical hit. (Cost: +5 bonus)
· Sticky: forego critical to make bonus steal combat maneuver to take opponent's weapon. (Cost: +1 bonus)
What about specific magic weapons? The Akitonian blade gives some cool low-gravity-style movement and Acrobatics bonuses. The riddling khopesh? Why that thing is just asking to be made into an intelligent weapon...
Wondrous Items and Spells
The amulet of quaking strikes allows the wearer to make a strike against the ground and do damage to everyone within a 20' radius. I like this, but a little similar to the foehammer's 13th level ability to me. The Arms of the Marilith look so much fun for a player, but like a GM looking for game balance's nightmare. The crown of challenge undermines the inquisitor's main class feature. The eyes of the liar, coming in at only 16K gold, grant a +5 to Bluff checks and immunity to detect thoughts. Standard evil villain gear from here on out. The vestments of war are cool for buffing channeling and fervor abilities.
As usual for Player's Companions, they've released some spells with awesome flavor. What’s unusual for a Player’s Companion is that lots of the spells have general application. Player’s Companions often have some really cool spells that would be totally awesome in one single corner case. But, absent that, it’s not really that great. That problem is not present here. Upon reflection, these spells are all really great to be placed on scrolls—that way the PCs can decide to use them or learn them. There are also a surprising number of druid spells on this list. If you’re running a melee druid, fiery runes and vine strike should be given serious consideration.
I thought I’d try explaining it in table form:
So that’s it. I’ve walked all through the Melee Tactics Toolbox. And, I have to say, I like the product a lot more after doing the review than I did after I read it but before writing the review. Beforehand, I felt let down that Paizo hadn’t followed up with something to match the Ranged Tactics Toolbox. Now, I don’t feel like they’ve surpassed the book’s ranged sister, but they’ve at least put up some decent material on the board. There are some interesting feats in here and—I cannot say this enough—the combat action chart on the back inside cover is everything.
4/5 stars. Buy this book.