Ultimate Magic is like a 300-level class in spellcasting for the Pathfinder RPG. New spells, classes, optional rules systems and feats make this book a boon (if not outright essential) for anyone who plans on slinging spells.
I really like the number and scope of the primary Pathfinder rule books. In addition to the core rules and the Advanced Player’s Guide, there are the two ultimate books, one for magic and one for combat. That means that the title is accurate – this really is the Ultimate Magic book. That’s not to say that Paizo will never come out with another magic-focused book, but you know that in three months they won’t be releasing a book about necromancy, then two months later a book of new magic classes that are vaguely different from the first ones.
Ultimate Magic is definitely for more advanced players. If you consider the sheer volume of magical stuff that you get in the Pathfinder Core Rules, not to mentioned the Advanced Player’s Guide, it’s hard to argue that UM is essential. And yet there’s so much cool stuff going on in it that if you’re playing a spellcasting class (13 out of 17 classes, as noted in the introduction), it’s hard to argue that it isn’t.
The new base class, the Magus, is a swordmage. It’s way cooler than a multiclassed fighter/wizard, though. The Magus’ class abilities let her spend arcane points to blend magic and fighting on the fly, by imbuing weapons with temporary enchantments, casting touch spells through weapons and combining other cool magical effects with the old stabby stabby. That’s a lot more interesting and innovative than the, “I’m kind of good at this thing, and also kind of good at this other thing” method of blending classes.
Most of the other spellcasting classes in Pathfinder get expanded rules here. There are new archetypes, class features, granted powers, variants, mysteries, oaths and more than I can adequately describe. It’s all pretty heavy on the crunch, but you get so many options that you can create unique characters with amazing combinations of abilities. Change the very nature of your sorcerer, pledge your paladin to a new oath, create a dinosaur druid…I’ll just stop there, because how can you top “dinosaur druid”?
The seriously advanced stuff comes in the “Mastering Magic” chapter. There are several detailed explanations on creating things, adopting new subsystems and other customizations for your campaign or character. There’s a fun, lightweight system for 1-on-1 spell duels, with both casters flinging magic and countering the opponent’s spells at a brisk pace. You can add spellblights and learn all kinds of things about binding demons and celestials to your service. If you’d rather hammer your minions out of cold steel, the section of building constructs should come in handy. Of course, no caster worth his salt is ever content with the published spells, even if there are hundreds of them. You’ll want to design your own, so rtfm.
The sections on feats and spells are as expected. If you like those things, there are more of them. Enjoy.
I want to devote some extra attention to the Words of Power section. This is an ambitious attempt to create an entirely new spellcasting system that still fits the spell/level/slots per day “Vancian” casting system. Instead of specific spells, the Words of Power system gives you spell words that can be combined into flexible new wordspells. You mix a target word with one to three effect words, plus an optional meta word than can amplify the spell’s effects. Each morning when you memorize your spells, you can mix and match your known spellwords in new ways.
I was really excited about this system and created a character using it. The ability to apply creativity to spellcasting seemed like a great idea. It is a great idea, but it didn’t work out for me. For wizards and other prepared spell casters, you still have to try and guess what spells you might need at the beginning of the day; this nerfs the flexibility to some extent. It also feels like the wordspells were depowered, probably out of caution to avoid blowing the old system out of the water. I’d hoped that third party publishers would support the system, expanding the number of wordspells available and perhaps nudging the power level up a bit, but I haven’t been able to find any.
There are some situations where Words of Power shine. The best use of the system for a wizard would be to combine several buff effects into a single spell, so you can give the party’s main combat character an AC boost, a speed buff and an attack bonus all in the first round with a single spell. Spontaneous casters can become incredible combat threats, the ultimate blaster mages. The reason is the ability to choose the target word. Normally you’re limited to specific energy/attack pattern combos. Cold damage happens in a cone, fire in a blast, electric in a line. With a wordspell, you can pick the exact damage and pattern needed for a given situation. Ice elementals all in a row, and they’re vulnerable to fire? Hit ‘em with a fire line. Need a cone of lightning? It’s yours, on the spot. That’s pretty powerful stuff.
Paizo’s emphasis on quality over quantity for their core books really pays off here. There are enough cool options in Ultimate Magic to help you make lots of interesting characters and exciting adventures. Most Pathfinder campaigns would certainly be better off with this book than without it.