Pathfinder Review: Ultimate Intrigue

The spring release for the Pathfinder Roleplay Game is Ultimate Intrigue, which is the counterpart to Ultimate Magic  and Ultimate Combat. It’s the twenty-fifth hardcover book for Pathfinder, or, alternatively, it’s something like Paizo’s 170th Pathfinder RPG book.

What Is It

PZO1134Ultimate Intrigue is a 253-page full colour hardcover book. It focuses on skills and interaction in the same way as Ultimate Combat focused on violence and weapons or Ultimate Magic focused on spells and casting. Like those two books, Ultimate Intrigue introduces a new class as well as new feats, spells, and magic items. There are archetypes for 24 of the now 36 Pathfinder classes.

This book also includes subsystems, including a lengthy section on verbal duels. The two chapters of Mastering Intrigue and Social Combat are a mixture of advice and these additive subsystems. There are no alternative rules in Ultimate Intrigue, like the various rules of Ultimate Combat or the Words of Power rules from Ultimate Magic.

The Vigilante

Ultimate Intrigue adds the vigilante class to the game, giving its role as “skilled at negotiating delicate social situations and courtly intrigue, but they can also serve as stealthy spies or even brutish warriors”.

Photo 2016-03-30, 2 32 12 PMThe signature ability of the vigilante, and arguably the reason for its existence, is Dual Identity. The class is defined by a secret identity, which allows it to change its alignment; Dual Identity mostly exists to evade scrying and detection magic that would otherwise reveal the identity of the masked hero. I.e. if ouija boards actually worked, any villain could just consult one and ask “Who is Batman?” This also makes the vigilante a good tool for Gamemasters in a mystery campaign, and even its existence can cast some doubt on the reliability of divination magic.

Pathfinder has always worn its pulp inspiration on its sleeve, and masked vigilantes are trope of that genre, with the Shadow, Zorro, Lone Ranger and even the Scarlet Pimpernel being popular examples, predating comics and characters such as Batman.

In addition to their twin identities, the vigilante gains a number of social talents (useful in their civilian guise) and vigilante talents (useful in their caped crusader outfit). Half the social talents are related to the Renown talent, which is a little like the Reputation subsystem, and makes them automatically liked. These talents grant the character things a safe house, aliases, the ability to seem supernaturally innocent, and bonuses to social skills. Vigilante abilities are divided between “avenger” and “stalker” abilities, which are almost a 5th Edition D&D subclass. Avenger vigilantes have a higher attack bonus while stalkers deal roguelike bonus damage. There are some 50 talents, with 9 limited to avengers, and 12 stalker talents

There’s some neat vigilante talents. They can ignore armour penalties, become amazing at stealth, slam enemies together, turn random items into weapons, have thrown weapons return to their hand, and use foes as shields. And depending on their vigilante flavour, talents can be swapped with combat feats or rogue talents, making it a very flexible class (albeit one with a lot of potential options every other level).  But there also some pretty niche ones that feel like filler. I can see why Chase Master is appealing – as the vigilante seems like the class that should rock chases – but very situational (this and getting Improved Unarmed Attack Strike feel like things all vigilante’s should get). There are some talents which feel too good. The ability to charge and make a full attack is pretty potent. Given talents are kinda sorta meant to be equivalent to a feat, it seems odd that Shield of Blades, Shield of Fury, and Signature weapon give you a feat plus secondary bonuses. Signature Weapon gives two feats at the same time.

Apart from talents, vigilantes get only a handful of minor abilities. They’re harder to Intimidate, and are really good at surprising people, gain bonuses to attack people they surprise, and are eventually able to Intimidate the surprised for free.

The 17th level ability of the vigilante allows them to stun opponents they surprise, with a Will save negating. However, the creature receives a +4 bonus if their Hit Dice are higher than the vigilante’s class level. And, at 17th level, you will never fight anything with fewer Hit Dice than you. The Bestiary advices CR 17 monsters to have HD ranging from 21 to 28, and even a CR 17 NPC has at least 18 Hit Dice.

The capstone ability of the vigilante allows them to study an opponent, granting a number of different bonuses to an attack that can be mix-and-matched. As an example, after 5 rounds studying an opponent, a vigilante can give themselves a +8 to the attack, treat the roll as 2 high (no natural 1s) and add 6d6 damage to the attack. Plus all the regular bonuses for their surprise attack. This really makes the vigilante master of the alpha strike. Although, this capstone (along with the 5th, 11th, and 17th level abilities) really favour the stalker vigilante, who gains more bonuses when they surprise enemies. The avenger vigilante just gets full BAB and talents, so there’s less incentive to stay in the class rather than shift to rogue or fighter or brawler.

The Good

Photo 2016-03-30, 2 34 26 PMThe book has a solid focus. Attention is continually paid to skills, with a decided slant to stealth or the social skills (Intimidate, Bluff, Diplomacy, and Sense Motive). Even archetypes regularly swap out or add class skills. The book feels consistent and thematic.  

The new archetypes and other rules options are very specific but often very creative, mostly in mechanics but occasionally also in flavour. Because the “easy” content has been done, these archetypes have to work harder to justify their existence, so most do something interesting or take the class in a different direction. There’s some neat and inventive stuff there.

The book even includes some very different ranger combat styles, adding more intrigue or courtly options instead of the standard archery or fighting with two weapons.

The feats in this book are more universal. Many have prerequisites, but they are generic and fewer class specific ones. This is a nice change from the Advanced Class Guide and Occult Adventures where most of the feats were for classes from that book. There may only be a couple feats just for vigilantes.

The Spells of Intrigue subsection is six pages of debate-resolving discussion. It basically breaks down and explains how the various divination and mind altering magics work and answers questions raised at the game table. It’s almost a long-form FAQ on the topic. Very handy. It’s nice to have a reminder that charm person isn’t mind control.

The book talks about various types of intrigue game, and doesn’t just focus on the typical usage (i.e. drama among the nobility) but also moves to the unexpected and non-standard (i.e. criminals or investigation). This includes both the advice but also the archetypes and feats. There are noble archetypes, criminal archetypes, and investigative archetypes to name just a few.

The organizational variant of the Influence subsystem is rather slick. It’s also fairly system agnostic and could be pulled into a D&D campaign. List of favours and the ranking is useful. It’s somewhat comparable to the faction system of 5th Edition D&D, but with the neat added twist of negative ranks. It reminds me of reputation in MMOs like World of Warcraft, but simpler and less grindy.

Page 126 has a sizable sidebar on Disguise and Stealth by groups and not individuals. It’s almost a full page (and I almost wish it had been expanded into a full page or two-page breakdown, maybe with some optional rules or expanded advice). Good stuff.

The Skills in Combat section gives some great advice and breakdowns of the uses for skills, clarifying the rules and breaking down the uses. Perception and Stealth is particularly useful, but the whole section is must-read material for GMs.

There is expanded details on Leadership, aka the most powerful feat in the game. It breaks down the assorted modifiers for a character’s leadership and provides alternate monstrous cohorts, so instead of a classed humanoid the player can have an azer or siren or flumph. It also reprints a few of the variant Leaderships from the various Player Companion books, collecting them all in one place. While I normally frown on too much reprinting in the RPG line, collecting these feats does make sense, and this is as good a place as any for a Leadership expansion (I do wish there were some optional rules in this section adjusting the Leadership feat. Reducing the xp gained by the party because they effectively have an extra PC would be nice.)

The Bad

Photo 2016-03-30, 2 32 54 PMUltimate Intrigue includes numerous ways to boost skill checks. However, skill check bonuses are already pretty rampant in the game, being valued less than attack bonuses or ability bonuses (10 to 20 times less gp for magic items that give a skill bonus). You can break the math of the game quite readily when you focus on a skill or two.

(Although, ironically, the feyspeaker druid archetype gets a couple extra skills per level and added skills but loses a lot in the process, including a reduction of BAB and the Nature Sense feature.)

Demoralizing is big in this book. While also common with the swashbuckler, the vigilante and a number of other options in this book push demoralizing to the forefront. There’s a lot more demoralizing going on in Pathfinder. Which is unfortunate as the save for that ability is non-standard and requires on-the-fly math. It’s an awkward mechanic.

The social talents of the vigilante are rather weak, especially for Pathfinder Society. The vigilante in generally is a pretty awkward fit, but half the social talents are related to “renown”, which really might not work in Society play. Really, the social vigilante really doesn’t work in all but two or three Adventure Paths, as enough time is just not spent in cities. (And it really doesn’t help the verisimilitude of Dual Identity to have the hero and their secret identity to arrive in town at exactly the same time.) 

While I do like the Organizational Influence system and larger Influence system, Pathfinder already had an influence system with Fame/Renown. Expanding that system seems like it would have been more useful than replacing it with an incompatible variant. Similarly, Pursuits are basically overland Chases and could have been an expansion of that subsystem, possibly with optional rules in sidebars expanding it.

The book has lots of subsystems and new optional rules but no real variant rules that replace the existing rules. For example, there’s no variant of Stealth or Diplomacy. In the case of the later, you can use the multi-page Influence system, but this is very detailed and not something that can really be done ad hoc. Alternate ways to handle skills without lengthy mini-games would have been nice.Photo 2016-03-30, 2 32 24 PM

Several of the subsystems replace single checks with multiple successes, including the Pursuits, Research, and Individual Influence. These are somewhat similar to the 4th Edition Skill Challenge system (or Complex Skill Checks from 3e’s Unearthed Arcana). Rather than three incompatible and self-contained 6-page Skill Challenges subsystems, they probably could have just had one lengthy 12-page section on Complex Skill checks with one or two-page options on various types of Complex Skill Checks. It would be more flexible and compatible, and easier to use at the table since it wouldn’t require learning multiple different ways of task resolution. And since it would be building on two prior editions of the rule set, it could have made use reams of feedback and play experience.

Most of the subchapters are six pages, even if the topic could have used less. I imagine this was the mandated length (possibly for ease in managing freelancers) and there was a set word count. But this inflexible length feels needless and results in some sections getting fewer pages than they warranted and some receiving too many. For example, the Nemesis section is just okay: it’s good to have some advice on the topic but I don’t think six pages was really remotely necessary, especially when 2/3rds was “strategems” than are just an awkward attempt at codifying xp rewards or quests not initiated by the players but their opponent. It’s several pages that could have been put to better use elsewhere.

A lot of other books are assumed, including but not limited to the Advanced Player’s Guide, the Advanced Class Guide, Occult Adventures, Advanced Race Guide, Ultimate Combat, Ultimate Equipment, and Ultimate Magic. Because it makes use of the unchained summoner, Pathfinder Unchained should also be on that list. While the online Pathfinder Reference Document makes it possible to use this book without those others it’s not ideal since not everyone has reliable internet access at the game table. Ultimate Intrigue really assumes you have a fairly complete collection of Pathfinder RPG books.

The crunch often has some of the same weakness of the other more recent Pathfinder releases. The text of new mechanics and spells can get pretty specific, full of clarifying statements and caveats to make sure the rule cannot be misread and limit potential abusive combinations. It’s heavy reading. There’s also quite a bit of mix-and-matching of class features: classes getting a dash of another class. With multiclassing being as easy as it is in Pathfinder, overlap feels redundant. It also makes classes less unique, as they have fewer abilities only they have access to.Photo 2016-03-30, 2 32 44 PM

Because there’s so much new content, there’s a high percentage of filler. Several of the vigilante archetypes are thematically weak. The warlock is just a vigilante that has some arcane spellcasting, the zealot is the divine variant, and the psychometrists is an occult vigilante. Similarly, many feats just aren’t worth their cost, being useful but super situational… or just not that useful at all. The feat that’s really good if you’re feinting and fighting an opponent with teamwork feats or a flank buddy; the feat that lets you attempt to throw an enemy into an area of effect spell; the feat that grants you a fighting style only if you are in a city (because being in ruin will change how you punch someone).

One feat that really jumped out at me is Darkness Trick. The feat that lets you turn off the glow of a magical weapon if you can cast darkness (which means, RAW if you’re a prepared caster, you have to have it prepared, because anytime it’s not memorized you can’t cast the spell and thus do not meet the prerequisites). Handy and useful, since you have a non-glowing weapon ready, but it would be just as effective to take Quick Draw.

The book also reprints Fencing Grace from Advanced Class Origins, but chooses to reduce its power and add limits: errata could have been handled via an update. I imagine putting it into a hardcover book means it’s available for PFS module authors, but that’s such a small subset of the fanbase. Reprinting content from an Adventure Path is permissible since it’s not clear what monster is where, but you know the Advanced Class Guide expansion book has swashbuckler content; what’s the point of putting feats in other books if they don’t “count”?

The Ugly

The absence of roleplaying mechanics and subsystems stood out to me. Not just rules that let you replace roleplaying with rollplaying, but subsystems and advice on adjudicating how well someone is roleplaying, rewarding roleplay, and such. Now, the common counterpoint to this is that roleplaying doesn’t need mechanics. However, modern narrative roleplaying games like Fate show that you very much can add plot manipulation to roleplaying games (although, Plot Point type games have been around for ages). A book on intrigue, stealthy, and spying would have been the perfect place to add narrative control and roleplaying reward mechanics to the Pathfinder system. Especially in Heists, which often have a twist revealing the reversal was foreseen and planned for: the book mentions having a “contingency” ready, but this feels undefined and almost an afterthought. A more fleshed out “flashback” mechanic would been lovely to include, and is the sort of thing that requires the balancing skill of a professional designer.

There’s no real content for the fighter or barbarian, the two classes that needed the most love to fit into an intrigue based game. There’s a couple feats that kinda count as fighter options, letting you use your BAB instead of skill ranks when using skills, but they really feel designed for the avenger vigilante. For example, Martial Dominance lets a full BAB class get a bonus to intimidate equal to their level (although, since the character’s Charisma is likely poor, they’re still better off letting the Small gnome bard intimidate people).

The vigilante class seems to exists for two very bland reasons: symmetry – as the other Ultimate books had a class – and because the rules as written make superheroes impossible due to readily available divination spells. However, since a vigilante requires a very specific type of campaign to exist anyway, giving advice on how to vary the divination spells seems like an easier tactic than spending 20 pages on a new class. The vigilante effectively exists because Paizo assumes you’re not going to house rule the game or remove options to match the campaign’s tone. The vigilante doesn’t really solve the divination problem: in a fantasy world where scrying magic is easily available and the powers of a vigilante as known as that of a fighter or cleric (or, at least, as known as a bloodrager or psychic) then you just need to scry on likely suspects when you know the vigilante is active and find out who ceases to exist.Photo 2016-03-30, 2 32 38 PM

As an alternative to house rules, the vigilante could easily have been a prestige class. After all, what does a first level vigilante look like? A first level character is the hero during the first 30 minutes of the movie, when they’re training and testing their powers before they get their costume. The prestige class aspects are especially prominent when everything you need to be to act as a vigilante can be attained in a 1 or 2 level dip into the class. The capstone ability is a slight variant of the assassin’s deathblow ability, so a rogue/assassin with a couple levels of vigilante has most of the same tricks. While a full vigilante class could very well work well, it feels more like a niche offering from a 3rd Party Publisher than something that should be official content.

Several of the feats reduce options, taking actions that might otherwise have been attempted and moving them into a feat. While this codifies the rules, it does mean the action cannot be attempted without the feat, reducing player creativity. Want to convince people to stop fighting? You should have taken the Call Truce feat. Want to lie and trick someone into thinking you cast a hostile spell on them? You need Feign Curse. Want to determine how two characters feel about each other with your high Sense Motive character? You require the Sense Relationships feat. Trying to help an ally using Disguise with the Bluff skill? You need the Willing Accomplice feat.

Lastly, the Misdirected Tactics feat seems to have similar problems to the Crane Wing, in that it all but shuts down an attacker with a single big attack. Because it’s paring a skill check with an attack bonus, the player has an advantage, especially since a rogue or bard’s Bluff bonus will likely be significantly higher than a foe’s attack bonus.

And, as a nitpick, at the end of the Social Combat section that are a couple of the most generic pieces of art ever, that look like superfluous pieces added to fill space. The most bland and generic “here’s our iconic posing” shots imaginable.  

The Awesome

A few archetypes really leapt out at me. The metamorph alchemist is pretty much an alchemist in name only. It’s the dedicated shapeshifter class Pathfinder/3e has always needed (and done in half a page). And there’s also the skinshaper druid that also does the same concept with a slightly different interpretation.

There’s a lot of fey in the book. I like my fey flavour, and this has been lacking in the past. The First World/ Faerie is an underused part of Pathfinder/ D&D. There’s a fey eidelon for the summoner, a feyspeaker druid, a fey trickster mesmerist, and a courtly hunter, whose name really doesn’t emphasise what it does nearly enough.

Photo 2016-03-30, 2 33 35 PMA quick rundown of other neat archetypes that jumped out at me. As a horror/ Ravenloft junkie, I liked the sorrowsoul bard, which has been described as the emo. The grey paladin allows a shift in the paladin’s alignment, which isn’t new to D&D but is a big change for Pathfinder, which has otherwise stuck firm to the paladin = Lawful Good requirement. Similarly, there’s a Lawful Evil antipaladin build, which is needed but pretty barebones, possibly being incomplete. The magic child archetype for the vigilante is going to make a LOT of people happy, and it even has a small animal guide. The spiritualist archetypes are nice and evocative, taking the “spirit” in a different direction. (Although shadow caller could easily have been a summoner build… and might have already.) Lastly, the wildsoul vigilante adds animal powers to the class; while cheesy as eff and as subtle as a oversized prop comedy brick to the head, there is an arachnid version. It’s the Spider-man archetype. Too bad to do whatever a Spider-man can you need to be 18th level.

Feinting is a huge part of this book. The action requirement and prerequisites always made feinting seem inoptimal for most classes, a rogue trick that made them lose iteratives and offhand attacks. But there’s some interesting uses here, and Ranged Feint is a nice option for archer rogues to regularly get sneak from a safe distance.

As always, there are some nice pieces of art. I’ll mention a few of the more interesting pieces. The iconic inquisitor and arcanist talking down an angry mob on page 167 tells a story in one picture. The hat swapping on page 183 is hilarious, as is the cavalier and the pig on page 207. So much of the enjoyment gained from the art is that Pathfinder fans know the iconics and their personalities, which makes the sight of Alain the cavalier (who is kind of a dick) holding a pig all the more amusing. To say nothing of the wealth of drama on page 219, which has an entire extra layer of meaning if you read the Pathfinder comics.

The researching section is kinda neat. Researching can be a big part of RPGs: hunting down monster lore, the weaknesses of a Big Bad, the history of a region, and the like. But it can be pretty anticlimactic in play, reduced to a die roll or a narrated cut scene (time passes… you find a book).

Final Thoughts

A book with an intrigue theme is one I’ve pushed for several times over the years, starting in late 3e when I thought Heroes of Intrigue would be a good counterpart to Heroes of Battle and Heroes of Horror. It was a book I was hoping to see for Pathfinder years ago, and one I really wanted to tear into and love, but currently find myself unexited by.

First, this book just feels outdated, the counterpart to books released in 2011. The look of the book matches those books, save a few very small touches (the iconic’s gear in the class section, the magic item statblocks, and the pictures of iconics in the spell lists). If not for the many references to classes from other books, this book could have been released half a decade ago. While not bad per se, it feels safe and unimaginative, which is disappointing from a company known for taking changes and raising the bar.

Feats, classes, spells, and magic items encompass 148 of the book’s 253 pages of content. That’s 59% of the book, and a *lot* of new content for a game system that is already bursting at the seams with player content. And twenty of those pages are focused on the vigilante, an arguably unneeded class. This feels very paradoxical. An intrigue campaign is one very focused on role-playing and narrative and this book focuses on combat crunch, at best applying those mechanics to allow you to “win” roleplaying using combat resolution systems.

The other three Ultimate books were necessary crunch for a game system that had lost all of its options. But with more Pathfinder RPG content now available than there was for 3rd Edition D&D, this product simply isn’t what the Pathfinder RPG needs at this time. I wonder if this product would have been better as Intrigue Adventures, instead focusing on adjusting the campaign with more advice on running intrigue games (being more of a DM product) than being an Ultimate book released a couple years too late. Really, this is a book designed to help players run intrigue focused characters in an intrigue focused campaign, but there’s very little advice (maybe 3 1/2 pages) to help GMs run an intrigue campaign with Pathfinder. Intrigue and social campaigns can be tricky, and advice on planning that kind of campaign would have been super handy. It’s not a subject I’m particularly well versed in or that many books have covered before; this book could have easily become the definitive book for running intrigue RPG games.

In the end, Ultimate Intrigue excellent but unremarkable book. It’s great if you want to play in an intrigue or skill heavy game but not really a great book if you want to run a intrigue or skill heavy game. It includes a lot of content that works best if you already own a heck of a lot of content, and has a lot of new and unrelated subsystems.  

 

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