The title Strategists & Tacticians seems to cover an awful lot of ground, so you’d think it would be fairly easy to fit the contents under that broad umbrella. While this Pathfinder sourcebook from 4 Winds offers a lot of interesting ideas, it isn’t quite as focused as it could have been.
When creating a “splatbook” supplement, a themed collection of additional rules and background material to expand an existing RPG, there’s always some question how to unify the information within. A book that has too narrow a focus is often seen as too specific to justify an entire book, but one that’s too broad comes across as nothing more than random rules combined under one title. Strategists & Tacticians: The Definitive Guide to Clever Warriors, by 4 Winds Gaming, promises a middle ground of a single clear theme, designed to augment the tactical elements of a campaign in lots of different ways.
The overall look of the book is retro-professional. It comes off as very similar to the best of the 1st and 2nd Ed D&D third party products (Judges Guild, Mayfair), with a more cartoony art style and simple layout. That’s not a knock against the book, by any means. I don’t think everyone needs to go charging off into the Wayne Reynolds-looking painted covers and complex, realistic, almost “gritty” art that fills much of Paizo’s Pathfinder books. My only concern is buyers may look at this book and think it’s designed for a retro-clone RPG, which is not the case. But I myself found the art and layout well done and easily used. There are bookmarks, which is nice, and the product is searchable. I prefer landscape layouts, but not everyone does. I suspect the same layout was used for both the PDF and a print version, which again isn’t my preference, but it doesn’t really hurt the PDF version’s utility.
The book opens with some foreword material: how 4 Winds Fantasy Gaming came to publish the book, an overview of what’s in each chapter, a look at a P.O.V character (Flynn Dielle) who we are told is our guide through the this book, and a page long “History of Violence.” None of this material is bad, but it’s the sort of thing I normally skip over while I look for things to take to my game table. I read it all, because I’m doing this review, and was not particularly moved or enriched by the experience. But since I normally skip this sort of stuff, that’s not surprising, and given the length of the book I certainly don’t mind a little literary foreplay. If you enjoy this kind of material, what’s presented here seems well-done. [It’s funny, I’m the exact opposite, I skim a lot of the crunch when I review because I figure most DMs are going to modify for level, party size, etc. anyway. And interesting stuff like this has a greater tendency to move and enrich me. – Ed.]
Chapter 1, Strategic Characters opens with Culture and Strategy, a look at how each of the standard Pathfinder races approaches strategy. Each is a single paragraph, with no games rules or suggestion for game rules, and really no new ideas at all. If you are new to roleplaying, the material here might help you think about how your halfling thinks, but for anyone who has any experience in either RPG of fantasy fiction, these are the same stereotypes again. Dwarves are slow and get frustrated. Elves are crafty. Half-orcs get angry. I would have loved to see some suggestions on how these different attitudes might affect actual character builds, such as suggesting Toughness for dwarves, because they tend to soak up damage as they get into position to fight, or Catch-Off Guard for half-elves because they’re unpredictable. As presented, this is largely wasted space.
When the game rules do show up, they seem weird. Variant Class Features presents new powers for old classes, the same basic idea as Archetypes from Super Genius Games and the Advanced Player’s Guide. But the archetypes we get are the serene barbarian, violent performance bard, divine energy cleric, trapped route druid, fighter bonded pet, monk wall climbing, paladin divine calling, ranger orisons, rogue spell resistance, sorcerer learned sorcery and wizard intuitive wizardry.
My first reaction to all this is that is has nothing to do with strategy and tactics. That might not bother me in a more crunch-focused book, but this one has taken pages to push fluff text and talk about how each race views such things, so I feel cheated when the game rules don’t touch on it at all. For example, the ranger orisons allows you to cast 0 level druid spells in place of favored terrain. The option is well-written (if underpowered), and concise. It also has nothing whatsoever to do with strategy, or tactics. And while a case could be made there are strategic uses for 0-level spells, the book doesn’t touch on them. It talks about rangers wanting more divine magic despite knowing they’ll never be good at it, not why that might give them greater strategic choices.
A lot of these rules also just make no sense in terms of game reality. The serene barbarian is just a weird idea. So weird the book has a sidebar trying to justify it. I can almost accept if we use serene to mean “unflappable” since there are some uncivilized characters who don’t lose their cool even in combat. But why would that prevent him from casting spells, using Intelligence skills, or communicating? The barbarian is so calm he won’t talk to anyone? Huh? The druid’s trapped route is a really neat idea and is strategy related, but it doesn’t follow the normal pathfinder rules for traps, and the druid isn’t actually creating traps, just finding a route that already has them, but for some reason no one explains, they don’t affect anyone who got to these areas before the druid did.
That’s not to say this is all bad. There are a lot of interesting ideas in this section, but I don’t find most of them useable out of the box. If you want to incorporate the ideas the book has presented about tactics in your game, these rules don’t help. If you want them to make sense, you may have to change their explanations entirely. And while I really like the ideas for learned sorcery and intuitive wizardry, I have strong concerns about their balance. A Charisma 14 intuitive wizard has picked up 2 additional 1st, 2nd and 3rd level spells per day by 7th level. That worries me.
The chapter is rounded out by a 1-level base class, the apprentice, which allows you to combined the power of 2 other classes and be part of each at 1st level, and gain some benefits useful in later life. It’s interesting, but too complex. The schooled bard seems fine mechanically but takes up eight pages with not a word on tactics. If it was eight pages of fighting classes I could understand the link, but the longest section on a book promising me “Clever Warriors” is on a class that “bridges the gap between musician and magician.” No clever. No warrior.
While I am not a fan of prestige classes in a lot of cases, I do think chapter two is well done, and may be the best part of the book. They fill some interesting niches, and match the book’s theme quite well. For example, I really like the holy striker. It’s designed to allow clerics (mostly) to give up some spellcasting power for more martial options. It looks well balanced, plays well to the theme of the book, and is clearly described. The landshark is a lot more limited in scope, but is a cool idea and also looks balanced. I suspect a lot of water-based campaigns could use them as foes, at least. The pikeman is another prestige class I like, because it gives a broad range of options for using spears to better and varied effect. If I was to rate just this chapter, it’d get an 8.5/10.
Chapter three is Options, and like the Prestige Classes is a much stronger part of the book. It opens with a wide range of feats. Some are fascinating (Brutal Deception gives you an automatic critical hit when you strike a foe with a friendly attitude towards you, good for characters with lots of Diplomacy, or good charm spells). Some are simple (Forceful Riding lets you add your Strength, rather than Dexterity, to Ride checks). Some are very, very situational (Healing Run is Spring Attack, but only for casting healing spells). None are brilliant, but also none are awful. It follows that up with a similar set of spells, which seem about average for 3pp Pathfinder spells.
Chapter Four is Tactical Maneuvers, which is much more the kind of material I expected form this book. If this had been an earlier chapter, I might have been more forgiving of the whole book (though maybe not, having a lot of pages dedicated to a mag bard was going to feel weird whenever I hit it).
The chapter starts with four new combat maneuvers, which is a very neat idea. The execution is less than perfect. The first two maneuvers are, in a word, overpowered. With exactly the same mechanics as are used to trip or disarm a foe, choking strike allows you to cause them to be staggered. Staggered is one of the worst conditions in the game, and if you make your CMB roll by enough, your foe is staggered for multiple rounds. If I added this to my games, I’d have choke striking fighters and monks coming out of the woodwork. Sever is just as bad, as it lets you cut off a limb with a CMB check (the foe gets a Fortitude save, but that’s immaterial by 5th level or so given the DCs involved), but does no damage.
The next two aren’t as bad, though they’ll be tricky to use. Strangle lets you choke someone, and it’s basically a grapple-with-drown effects added, which is reasonable if a bit slow. Throat threat is the classic maneuver of holding a weapon to a foe’s throat, and although it makes the mistake of using the term “vital strike” without meaning the feat Vital Strike, it looks like the mechanics are solid. After that comes “Off-Hand Tactics” which are micro-maneuvers you can do with a free hand. These are less effective than grapples and choke strikes, but also easier to perform. I really liked these, almost as much as I disliked choke strike. They are short, simple, and flavorful. I think the would add a lot for players of rapier-using swashbucklers and bare-handed fighters without actually unbalancing anything. The chapter rounds out with rules on losing body parts, which is needful since the sever maneuver exists, if a tad off-putting.
After that is game stats for Flynn Dielle, the NPC who has been sprinkling the whole book with quotes that are more-or-less related to the subjects at hand. The rules seem solid, and there’s a very important “How to Use Flynn Dielle” section with some good suggestions. I don’t need this NPC in a book about Strategy and Tactics, but if he’s going to be included I’m glad he’s well done. I may well add him to my own games, he’s interesting and well-conceived.
There’s an appendix on prosthetics, apparently duplicating material from another 4 Winds book, Luvin Lightfinder’s Gear and Treasure Shop. Again, with the sever maneuver, this is a good idea, though I’d rather have seen more feats or new combat maneuvers. These range from the ubiquitous hook hand to magic replacements like the iron arm. These are all well done, and I can see adding them to any game that has rules for limbs getting cut off. Even if you don’t use the sever maneuver, there are other sources of such maiming (Paizo’s own Critical Hit Deck includes some similar effects), and this is a good source for those.
As a free web enhancement, 4 Winds has released the Tin Man Prestige Class, which I’m throwing in here because it only makes sense in context with these rules. The class is essentially the ‘borg’ or ‘Bionic Woman’ of the fantasy world, gaining increased durability by replacing parts with prosthetics. It’s a short, tight prestige class that does what’s promised in the title, and I wish it had made it into the book. On the other hand, it’s hard to beat free, so I think this is a fair compromise.
The closing verdict on Strategists & Tacticians: The Definitive Guide to Clever Warriors isn’t clear- cut. It’s bigger than most third party Pathfinder compatible books, and reasonably priced, so you get a lot of material. On the other hand, that material is not as focused and developed as I would like. Too much of it feel like whatever rules the author and editors liked and decided to throw in, whether they went well together of not. I think about a third the total count of the book is unuseable without extensive house-ruling, a third has nothing to do with the book’s title or theme, and only a third will really help you quickly add clever warriors to your campaigns. Even so, there are lots of good ideas here, and anyone looking for a place to use for inspiration and bits-and- pieces will have a great time pouring through these.
I seriously considered giving this a 6, but ultimately decided that was just too harsh. A lot of this material is really, really good, and a lot of what isn’t can be the source for great rules and ideas. And there is a lot of it, which gives you a wealth of items to choose from. Also I found no editing gaffes, the layout is clear, the art is appropriate, and that counts for something. My final score is 7/10, with a note to the publisher that tighter focus and some thought on the impact some of the suggested rules would have on play could have brought this up to a 7.5 or even an 8.
Strategists & Tacticians is available at RPGNow.