The black blade sang, evil,
filled with the magi's malice:
"I will embrace you."
The kind folks at Paizo gave me a review copy of this at BEA & I immediately set to reading it. It is apparently interesting enough that strangers on the train would notice it & inquire after it, so that speaks highly of the packaging & Pathfinder's brand. Speaking of the packaging-- there are heroic female characters as the centerpiece of both the back & front cover of this book, & it isn't a big deal. I don't know if Paizo has adopted an official policy of gender parity in their art direction, but I'm excited about it. Same goes for people of colour-- there are non-Western cultural inspirations in this book & there are people whose skins aren't pale. I find that to be exciting-- it is nice to see the hobby embracing equality. Little things matter, & showing that non-white non-male characters are fully capable of being awesome is heartening. Wayne Reynold's art style really has impacted the fantasy gaming scene in a positive way; I don't need him to be the be all end all, but I think he's a welcome addition into the pillars of what we think when we think about swords & sorcery. The interior art stands up to scrutiny as well-- as most of this book concerns variants & new options for spell-casting classes, the illustrations are of exemplars of those options. This is far less a "splatbook" & more in the vein of an Unearthed Arcana-- if you are getting bored of your favorite class, it could be a game changer. Well, because it actually changes the game. & gosh, is there a lot of stuff crammed in here!
The first new option in Ultimate Magic is a new class-- the magus. Magi are spellslingers & swordfighters, a blend of martial & arcane power. Since that is my jam-- like I mentioned in Heroes of Shadow, I'm down with the Warlock/Antipaladin multiclassing-- I'm happy to see it. First thing I noticed was that it was balanced by spell-list. That is a huge pet-peeve of mine; I hate spell lists. As far as I'm concerned, there should only be "arcane" & "divine" as spell divisions-- & I could even do without them. I think open-ended balance-- where every arcane class uses the same list, be they wizard or bard & every divine as well, cleric or paladin-- is the way to go. Just stagger when each class gets access to what level of spell & then concentrate on elegant & balanced spell design. That aside, the magus does have a fundamentally awesome core mechanic-- the Arcane Pool. I think Pathfinder loves pools-- monks, gunslingers, whatever other class-- but the magus has a really neat little trick. Their pool-- equal to half their level plus their Intelligence modifier-- can be spent on various class features, but it can also be spent on enhancing your weapon, as per the magic item cost modifiers. You can spend a point from your pool to make your weapon flaming or spend four points to make it dancing & so forth. That right there is some real kensai stuff.
A huge chunk of the book is devoted to alternative features, abilities & options for existing classes. The spell-casting ones-- sorry martial classes, but the book is called Ultimate Magic, after all. Alchemists have a host of new bomb discoveries, as well as new mutations like "tumor familiar" & variants like "vivisectionist." Great stuff. Bards have new masterpieces & archetypes such as "geisha," complete with a tea ceremony power. Clerics have new options for channeling divine power, & druids have substitute domains, as well as builds dealing with the more interesting ends of the food chain-- shark & dinosaur druids, etc. Inquisitors have new "inquisitions," which are more focuses to the class than domains, but I was disappointed in how boring their archetype variants were. The magus also has "new" options-- I mean, beyond the core class, though it is still in the same book. The expanded choices for monks are interesting-- I like a more supernatural monk, & providing spells as ki powers is a cool way to handle it. I've never seen an oracle in play, but the variant abilities for them here make them seem pretty voodoo in a compelling way. Paladins have oaths to select from, letting you swap class features, & rangers have new traps, & traps that look like they work & are useful, which is a pleasant surprise. The sorcerer section focuses on bloodlines, providing new ones & new options for old ones...weirder options, specifically. Summoners have new evolutions, which are good, but three pages are wasted on "models," which are just pre-made eidolons & I can't imagine any player worth his or her salt using them. Witches get a host of new hexes, including my personal favorite prehensile hair. Wizards have "arcane discoveries," which are essentially optional class features that you can trade your bonus feats for.
The next section is sort of an "advanced theoretical options" section. A laboratory filled with ideas for a player or narrator to run with or ignore as they see fit. Spellblights, for instance-- random magical mishaps that result in things like crying tears of blood or phasing in & out of existence. Spellblights don't have a single cause or a solid story based reason behind them-- that is left up to the narrator. Maybe there was a teleport mishap or a critical fumble, maybe there was a wild magic area or a curse put on an idol. The section on spell duels is like all other sections on spell duels-- sort of beside the point. Just wind up the magic users & let 'em have at it, I say. The next bit on binding outsiders is more just a nice compendium of in-game truths-- use silver on devils, & remember that they are immune to poison & fire & have resistance to acid & cold! Things to keep in mind, whether you are summoning an imp or an inevitable. Then we've got a host of new options for building constructs-- if you are going to build a construct this is probably wonderful, but if you aren't then I doubt you care. We've got new familiars, next-- you could have a pig or a goat! Or more to the point, a spider! Familiars are awesome-- I would have liked to see some more Improved Familiars, as well, though there is an updated list of available ones hidden way in the back of this book. Spellbooks-- magical spellbooks? Yes please! I think my favorite part of the whole of Dragonlance: Chronicles is Raislin in Xak Tsaroth, going after Fistandantilus' tome. The chapter closes up with an in-depth look at spell design-- I am all about transparency, so having this bit alone makes Ultimate Magic a solid product.
The chapter on feats really highlights the difference between Pathfinder & Dungeons & Dragons 4e. As I've said before, feats in 4e are worthless. Banal plus ones or narrow conditionals with lukewarm effects. A total snoozefest, & an abandoned opportunity. Pathfinder instead shores up the decline of 3e's feats-- they are all a bunch of interesting character options. There is a whole type of feats called "critical feats" that modify your critical hits. Accursed Critical is a good example-- you crit something, & if you have bestow curse or major curse prepared or are able to cast it somehow, you get to cast it for free. Balanced & evocative as heck. There are other stand-outs-- "Moonlight Summons" modifies your summoned creatures so that they shed light as per light, are immune to sleep & confusion, & count as silver versus damage reduction. Gerd's character in the first Oubliette campaign would have totally taken that. Starlight Summons & Sunlight Summons do something similar, for cold iron & magic weapons, respectively, with varying perks. There are things like Painful Anchor, which does damage to an evil outsider when it tries to summon or teleport to another plane in your presence-- very, very conditional, so it does an actually decent amount of damage-- 4d8 plus your Charisma bonus. They are all just neat little quirks-- Witch Knife lets you use a dagger as an athamé, giving you a +1 to the DC of your spells, Reward of Life lets you get a backlash of healing yourself when you use Lay on Hands, that sort of thing.
The next chapter-- thirty-some odd pages-- deal with "Words of Power." What the...what? Words of power are essentially a brand new magic system, much like how the old 3e Tome of Magic had new systems for binders, shadow mages & true namers. It is an ambitious attempt-- words of power attempts to break down spellcasting into various components, that a caster can use in different combinations to achieve the desired effect. Want a fireball? Try "burst fire blast." Make it "burst acid blast" & you've got an acidball, or "line fire blast" for a firebolt. I really like the impulse behind it...but I don't think it is a successful experiment. It isn't abstract enough, from what I can tell. The disclaimer suggests that bouts of "analysis paralysis" can arise, & I can really see that. There need to be fewer segments, with larger umbrellas. Mage: The Ascension had their ten spheres, & I'm not saying it needs to go that broad, but there are just too many words. I like the idea that adding words could add to the level-- "wall" versus "force wall" is a good example-- but I think things are broken down into too many discreet units, ultimately. I'd really be happy to hear some playtesting, though. & last but not least, Ultimate Magic closes with fiftyish pages of new spells-- for me mad monkeys, which summons a swarm of thieving monkeys, is the best of them, along with the create demiplane spells. I'm on the record as saying the only two decent 9th level spells in 3e were power word: kill & genesis, the latter of which is essentially a "create demiplane" spell.