Review: Ultimate Magic

Paizo Publishing recently released a shiny new hardcover for Pathfinder RPG. It came amidst much buzz and brouhaha. Now that I have my copy and have had time to pore over it, I may give you my thoughts.

Ultimate Magic is an interesting book. It is mostly a player option book in the vein of Advanced Player’s Guide. New stuff for players, primarily in the form of new options and increased customization for their characters. Whereas the APG tried to have something for everyone, UM is solely for spellcasters. Its companion volume, Ultimate Combat is coming out later in the year. In addition to the character options, though, UM has some interesting new things that go beyond just new spells and feats. The most significant of these is the alternative spell system, words of power, but it is not the only new thing here.

Let’s see what the book has eaten.

The Regular Features

Much like the APG, Ultimate Magic has a load of new archetypes, new feats and new spells for the player characters. It kicks off with the biggest new thing, the magus base class. It is the newest attempt to tackle the age-old problem of creating a balanced, functional character that combines melee combat with arcane spellcasting. This one has a long and… not all that glorious history, really. Bladesinger, eldritch knight, spellsword, hexblade… the attempts have been many and they have been either too powerful, too weak, or too bland.

While I’ve yet to see the magus in actual play, I think it might be the best yet. It is not a simple class, though – while the magus arcana abilities make it very customizable, it will take time for a new player to really wrap their head around how the magus plays. The class gets two-weapon fighting abilities with spells (stab someone in the face and cast a spell at the same time) and can deliver touch attack spells through their weapons. With the appropriate magus arcana (much like rogue talents), they can also deliver ranged touch attack spells like this, and they can also temporarily grant their weapons magical enhancements. In the right circumstances, a high-level magus can drop a small bucket of damage dice while wielding a penknife. As they progress in levels, they will also unlock better armour proficiencies, with a 13th-level magus lobbing fireballs in field plate. They have a fairly limited spell list, mostly attacks and buffs, and slow spell progression. The BAB progression is the same as the cleric’s.

Overall, I like the magus and will be interested in seeing how it performs in the field. May have to rewrite some NPCs in the Serpent’s Skull campaign, or perhaps even pregenerate one as a PC for my Planescape one-shot…

Then there’s a pile of archetypes and other new stuff for all the spellcasting base classes that have come before. You can see that the one they’ve had the most fun with is the alchemist. There’s a new discovery called “tumor familiar”. There’s an archetype called preservationist, who stores summon nature’s ally spells in bottles. “Dire tiger, I choose you!” Other alchemist archetypes include the psychonaut, the reanimator and the vivisectionist. It’s like the police lineup of mad professors. Awesome stuff.

The bard get the masterpieces, abilities that are related to their Perform skills and can be taken as either feats or replacements for new spells. Their archetypes include the geisha and my own favourite, the celebrity, for the character who is famous for being famous.

Nothing else really jumped out at me, except for the new summoner stuff. They get the aquatic eidolon base form, and the broodmaster and master summoner archetypes, which both come with the feature of having a metric crapload of summoned creatures on table. This can be hellishly slow of the player doesn’t know precisely what they’re doing and have all the stats with them. Fortunately, there’s a sidebar which says as much. (Personally, after a few sessions in 3.5 that felt like drinking tar, I now maintain a house rule that nobody summons anything unless they’ve brought the stats with them. I also have text files with prepared stats for the summoned creatures of any character that I play.)

Oh, and the witch gets the major hex “cook people” and the grand hex “witch’s hut”, which animates a small dwelling. Among the wizard’s new stuff are the metal and wood elementalist schools, in anticipation of the Jade Regent adventure path later this year.

There’s also 17 pages of feats and 45 pages of spells, including such wondrous magics as mad monkeys and rain of frogs. There are no new magic items.

Handily, an appendix at the back of the book provides us an expanded list of possible familiars for the Improved Familiar feat, adding the new lowbie outsiders from Bestiary 2. There are also just plain regular new familiars, such as the fox, the pig and the turtle, as well as a few more unusual creatures. Unfortunately, no penguins.

The New Weird

Then there’s the really new stuff. Well, new to Pathfinder RPG. Older versions of the game have seen their own interpretations of some of these.

First up, there’s the spellblights, magical diseases or ailments that only affect spellcasters. These may be acquired either by casting a spell in an area of spellblight or through a curse spell. There are also optional ways, such as rolling a 1 with the Use Magic Device skill or having a spell fizzle due to arcane spell failure (there’s always a save, though). Spellblights include stuff like spell addiction.

There are rules for spell duels, which I found a bit bland. While I suppose that you could recreate any of these scenes with them, it’s up to the players at the table to provide the flavour, because the rules themselves feel… unexciting.

Following that, we get rules for binding outsiders, along with true names and long lists of individual outsider and elemental types and the specifics of summoning them and binding them into service. Then come the rules for making, modifying and repairing outsiders. Then, expanded rules for spellbooks, followed by a 12-page treatise on designing your own spells.

Then we come to one of the more interesting bits in the book, the Words of Power.

It’s an alternative spellcasting system, where you start with a set amount of building blocks and then mix and match them to form the spells that you cast. This means that you have greater flexibility in arranging the effects of your spells – while the ordinary wizard is limited to his fireball and lightning bolt, the wordcaster can produce endless variations of them without resorting to the use of metamagic feats. On the other hand, since the amount of power words is fixed and limited, they cannot duplicate the more specific spells in the other casters’ repertoires, such as, for instance, prismatic spray (though the individual effects can be produced as separate spells, I think). You get all sorts of summoning, damaging, draining, healing and divining effects, so a wordcaster can fulfill all the main tasks of a regular caster of the same class in a game, no problem.

The words of power system can exist in a campaign and even in a single character alongside the regular Vancian spellcasting system, and at least looks balanced (as it should be, after all that playtesting). I am intrigued by its applications, and will definitely be whipping up a couple of NPCs utilizing the rules. (This book is throwing so many curveballs at my players that it’s not even funny.)

Overall

Well, it’s solid Paizo work. I’m not too excited about all of the additional material, but especially the new rules are all highly situational and I haven’t really encountered those situations yet. In general, though the stuff in it seems neatly written and balanced and stuff, and that which is obviously broken has already received impromptu errata on the forums, the book somehow fails to get me all fired up like Advanced Player’s Guide did. Okay, I’ll admit that mad monkeys is pretty awesome. Still, it’s missing that je ne sais quoi.

However, it’s a good book, especially if you’re playing a caster and looking for new options. Also, like all the PFRPG hardcovers, the PDF version retails for $10, for a 258-page file. Even if it you end up regretting the purchase, it’s unlikely you’ll regret it all that much.

Personally, I think I’ll have to see the material in action before I can really judge its final worth. Obviously, I must get a summer game going, now that the Serpent’s Skull campaign is on a break until the autumn semester.

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