RPG Review: Advanced Player’s Guide

There are at least three “advanced player’s guides” that I can think, but here I’m thinking of the 3.5 Advanced Player’s Guide by Sword & Sorcery Studios—White Wolf’s d20 imprint. Bristling with all sorts of rules options and player-based toolkits, the book adds a fascinating number of new rules options, some great, some odd, and some that just don’t work.

Between the cover and title, Sword & Sorcery is trying to evoke the 2nd Edition AD&D days, when the books were filled with optional rules—even entire optional chapters in the DMG. The book is filled with all sorts of new rules and toolkits, mostly geared towards players, but with a few GM-centric things like communities. A quick comparison would be to say it’s the Book of Experimental Might some five years early, but that doesn’t do either justice: the Advanced Player’s Guide covers a lot of breadth with its new rules, but doesn’t give the same depth as Experimental Might.

Since it came out in 2004 for a since-killed and revived edition, the book is long out of print, and can be hard to track down. It’s a lightweight for a hardback, weighing in at 244 pages and a $34.95 MSRP, though you can find it on Amazon or eBay for around $20 plus shipping.

Chapter One – Character Options

Heroic Merits and Tragic Flaws: For the min-maxer in all of us, the heroic merits are feats you get for free if your abilities suck, to reflect compensating for disabilities, while the tragic flaws are Achilles’ heels for characters with superhuman stats. Each stat at 9 or under gets you one heroic merit, 5 or under gets two, while each superhuman stat 19 or higher gets you a tragic flaw; you can random-roll them or chose, depending on GM.

The heroic merits are mostly utilitarian, giving +1 bonuses to skills and saves, with a few really interesting ones. If your Str is pitiful, you’ve mastered the fine art of running away, and can double your movement for the sole purpose of fleeing for one round/encounter. Another gives you a bonus first level spell slot if your Str, Con, or Cha is the pits. And if you’re strong and dumb, you can get a +1 bonus to Str checks, and can carry 50% more weight.

By comparison, the flaws range from pretty harsh to “where’s the downside?” Like Killing Hands, where you can’t do nonlethal with natural attacks; where’s the flaw there? And when I say harsh… one for Con makes you a plague bearer, so anyone near you could catch Filth Fever or whatever. Another gives you a -10 penalty to all Cha-based rolls, because you’re an ivory tower elitist with a high Int.

Racial Class Modifiers: These are traits applied to specific race and class combinations, which was pretty much the only thing Warlords of the Accordlands had going for it. Here, they’re applied at first level, and generally don’t stack. There’s a good mix in here, allowing for a lot of interesting character quirks, and since they don’t usually stack it makes them harder to min-max. The idea is to distinguish between individual class/race combos at first level: a dwarven fighter is going to be different from a half-orc fighter, for example.

There’s a lot of +1/+2 bonuses to saves and skills, as is usual, especially for the rogue classes. But the diversity is pretty good, and there’s a lot of choices both useful and quirky. Gnomish divine casters can get Animal Speak, which increases their per-minute duration to speak with burrowing animals. Human, Elf, and Halfling warrior-types can make a 10-foot step instead of a 5-foot step once per encounter. Human rogue-types can gain another skill point per level, including first, which is pretty ridiculous in Pathfinder. And Dwarf warriors can get a +1 bonus to resist being bull-rushed or tripped.

Chapter Two – Prestige Classes

Cutting right to the chase, we get six 10-level prestige classes. Really weird ones, too; these are some very diverse and innovative classes, based more on game mechanics than on making sense in a fantasy world. They’re also very hit or miss, but many of them are pretty solid hits.

  • Dilettante: Another of the bajillion “let’s have a bard that can do anything and gets all the skills” classes, like the Factotum, only one that makes more sense mechanics-wise. In short, it’s like the original bard, requiring three or more classes; progressing in the Dilettante allows you to buy some special abilities of your base classes, like a barbarian’s DR, a rogue or monk’s Evasion, and a druid’s Wild Shape. You have to have the base class to buy the ability, though, as a limiting factor. It has its own janky spell progression chart.
  • Elementalist: An interesting caster class for either divine/arcane; it gives you some bonuses with the four elements (shocking!). It progresses like a Ranger’s favored enemy, so you’ll be great at one, pretty good with two, and inept at the last one.
  • Gallowglass: A class that makes its own power-armor, then runs interference by interrupting enemy charges. (Literally, its big ability is called Blocker, and is making a five-foot step into the line of an opponent’s movement.) Their armor is ludicrously powerful: if you make all the widgets and greaves that fill most of your item slots, you’ll have a total nonmagical armor bonus of +21. It also gives you a -25 armor check penalty, and lowers your base speed to 5 feet. But it does everything it claims to do; if you ever wanted to play a defensive lineman in a fantasy world, go Gallowglass. I’m sadly fond of them.
  • Gemcaster: Wizards who get a lot of worthless abilities relating to gems. Like spending gems for spell materials costs, when those don’t exist in Pathfinder. My search for a good gem-casting presclass continues.
  • Pit Fighter: A gladiator who gets dirty fighting tricks, a class bonus to Bluff when making a feint, and a powerful weapon covered in glitter and sparkles. “Are you not entertained?” Interesting and well-rounded, just not that terribly useful… unless you’re running a gladiator game, I don’t see it happening that often.
  • Sidestepper: One of the best classes in the book, this is a mobility rogue who can become Nightcrawler.  At the end, the class gives Blink 4/day as a free action, Teleport 3/day as a free action, and Ethereal Jaunt 2/day as a move action. That’s about all it does, but the idea is slick as hell.

Next up are five “elite” prestige classes: presclasses with high entry requirements, just-shy-of-epic requirements, like the Heirophant’s requirement to cast 7th-level spells. Three of them have some issues: the Rogue Hunter is too narrowly specific, the Undead Bane is interesting but doesn’t work well in Pathfinder, and the Temporal Mage involves a lot of detail GMs don’t usually want to deal with (namely, time travel and whatnot).

Two, though, are amazing. First is the Arcane Warrior, one of the best fighter/wizard classes out there. It doesn’t increase spellcasting, but uses magic to increase their martial prowess: modifying magic weapons, and using ranged weapons to make touch attacks.  The other class is the Plantmaster, who slowly turns into a plant, gaining natural armor for most of their progression, and can turn into a seed to rejuvenate. They also replace animal companions with plants (choose algae!).

Last is a section with rules for epic levels. Yes, finally: epic rules for 3.5 are included! Taking the OGL epic rules and tweaking them, we get some really nice changes, on top of continued progression of things like Lay On Hands and Flurry of Blows. The new stuff is great, making epic levels much more like Pathfinder in terms of cool stuff every level. Barbarians get an extra dying level per epic level, and a +5 inherent bonus to either Str or Con. Paladins and rangers are bristling with new abilities, like the paladin gaining spell resistance, and the ranger getting an aim ability which increases ranged attack after watching a target for some rounds.

Chapter Three – Alternate Combat Rules

This chapter covers a lot of ground, and while the options aren’t always great, they are at least interesting… and different. Usually. The three new initiative styles are, in order, a crappy card-based system, having the GM roll initiative and keep track, and rolling initiative every round. That’s about the extent of the “total letdowns” in this chapter; while some of the other options just don’t do anything for me, they’re at least complex and interesting.

The rules for “phased combat” give Magic-esque phases, structuring combat depending on what actions are going to be taken; interesting, but not for my group. We get workable weapon speeds, a throwback to 2nd Edition; depending on what weapon is being used, and on some other situational modifiers, characters can receive a penalty or bonus to their initiative. There’s (fairly complex) rules for damaging/repairing armor, if you’re up for tracking the 1,500 hp a suit of splint mail has. There’s a nifty system for combat defense that involves rolling defense types, like dodge or parry, instead of having flat AC scores. And that’s just scratching the surface.

The critical fumbles section is complete, if a bit short, and nothing I’d turn in my Critical Fumble deck for. By contrast, the critical hits section is huge: it has over ten pages of critical hit charts alone, for each body part and weapon type. While it includes energy attacks, it doesn’t include natural attacks. Sigh.

Chapter Four – Arcane Spellcasting Systems

Much as with the previous chapter did for combat, this one changes the inherent way d20 handles spells. The systems aren’t bad, but they’re different, and I don’t see my players pushing to adapt them… well, other than the mana system. In general, they give the wizards a constant stream of ammunition, so there’s always something to do; I prefer how Pathfinder did this by opening up specialist wizard abilities and unlimited cantrips. Nigh-unlimited fireballs per day makes everyone else in the party underpowered.

The mana-based “spell points” system is reigned-in compared to the crazy-high spell points you get from the system in Unearthed Arcana, with the total number of points cut in a third to a half, but is still broken in its own way. Spell cost are a number of points equal to their level, which is pretty powerful. The UA system had costs around double the level minus one, and you had to pay for each additional damage die past its level (e.g., Fireball started at 3 dice because it was a third level spell). I’m wondering how much of it is a throwback to Sword & Sorcery’s earlier Everquest d20 game.

There’s also a system for spellcasting which treats it like a skill; make the roll, you cast the spell, fail and you don’t. Very straightforward, not terribly difficult; I see it working better in Pathfinder, with its limits on skill points/level. There’s also rules for spell criticals and fumbles, with around six pages of crit lists for all the spell schools.

Chapter Five – Variant Magic

I had high hopes for this chapter, but it turned out the “alternate spellcasting systems” were all in chapter four. These are just new spellcasting classes that cast existing spells in different ways from the core classes. They all have their own spell-lists, but half of them progress as druids, and only the Aethersmith has its own spell progression. Also note that all the new spells are for these new classes; there’s no new spells for the base classes. Ah well.

  • Aethersmith: The best, and most original, of the new spellcasters. Instead of casting spells, the class builds magical devices to produce the same effects as a spell. And not in the “magic items” or “scrolls” way, but a way of harnessing the flow of magic inside a technological device. It’s a bit hard to explain, since the book all but says “talk it over with your GM” in terms of mechanics, but it sounds cool, however it works.
  • Animist: A druid, without cool druid abilities like wild shape or flashy druid spells. The animist needs animals or nature spirits nearby, to whom they beg for spells, thus most of their abilities are tied to finding animals and earth spirits. There’s really no reason to choose this over druid, except for flavor.
  • Geomancer: A druid who manipulates ley-lines and nodes. Much like the Aethersmith, what that means is largely up to GM interpretation. The geomancer gets plenty of spells; they prepare a set number per day, and then cast any of the prepared spells in any combination. Truly the best of both worlds. They also can “channel” spells as if they were a weaker geomancer; it doesn’t specify, but I assume the “channeled” spells don’t need to be prepared or anything.
  • Soulcrafter: Finishing our line of poorly defined spellcasters is the soulcrafter, who can look inside people, figure out what’s wrong, and either rip it away (via Magic Jar and some new damage spells), or cure it through Lesser Restoration or Remove Curse.

Chapter Six – Castle and Keep

These are the community rules from Sword & Sorcery’s adaptation of Gamma World, repackaged for a fantasy game. Like most games, the rules take the mindset of building communities like characters, giving them skill points and feats and attributes, based on their population size and level. The skills indicate the average level of ability within the community, while the feats include things like fortifications, fertile fields, library, and fame/infamy.

The community-building rules in, say, Kingmaker are much more complex, and definitely more hands-on. It factors in things like stability and income with its “city saving throws,” as well as the progression and development of a city. And the new Song of Ice and Fire RPG is just plain amazing in how you develop and progress your own feudal house, and I’ve meant to pick up the book to use the rules in other games.

In contrast, the Advanced Player’s Guide rules are much simpler, more straightforward, and are more of a GM toolkit than one for players. Kingmaker’s rules are more in line for players determining how their city fares as it develops; the Advanced Player’s Guide rules are more for a GM to build up some pre-existing settlements, and doesn’t consider things like loyalty or stability. At the same time, the Kingmaker rules don’t go into as much depth in terms of a settlement’s game stats. I can’t really fault the Advanced Player’s rules for any of this; they’re thorough and effective at what they do.

The Bottom Line

Despite its flaws—which includes a lot of printing errors, and the woefully underdetailed “new spellcasters”—and while I wouldn’t say this book is necessary, it has enough strong points to merit a look. The classes are interesting, the new ideas range from the mundane to the brilliant… but always add a new spin to existing game mechanics. Having 3.5 epic rules is definitely a high point, even though they lack epic monsters and feats—in fact, the entire book is lacking feats, as well as the aforementioned spells. In general, it’s interesting to see the Sword & Sorcery guys manipulating the game system in every way that they can.

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