Product Review: The Martialist

I always had a problem with monks, and it was this. The whole pseudoreligious quasi-asian thing about punching just bugged the everloving hell out of me and this is as a guy that admittedly and unashamedly loves anime. But even in anime, some guys can just do flip kicks that send somebody flying because that’s how they roll, not because they’re buddhists.

I didn’t like that unarmed combat, something that isn’t, despite what you may think, exclusive to asian people, was delegated to a cross between Pope Jon Paul, The Dalai Lama and Jet Li if you want to do it effectively. Why couldn’t my fighter just punch you in the nads, and do it well? I don’t consider “your pathetic attack and its pathetic damage don’t draw Attacks of Opportunity” to be a significant improvement, D&D 3.5. Why couldn’t there be good feat chains for this or something?

That’s when I got this email from a certain small publisher called Fantasy Cartographic, that had just released a D&D 4th Edition third party product by the name of “Fantasy Class: The Martialist.” The Martialist is a 74 page PDF for 8 bucks which includes metric tons of powers, paths, epic destinies. Since lately I’ve been talking (and by lately, I mean one post a month ago and one now) about 4th Edition 3rd party products, I thought this was a perfect time for a review.

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Intro: There Will Be No Parappa References

To begin with, the product is a 10 megabyte file. In this day and age, if you can’t download a ten megabyte file…

We begin our journey into the Martialist with one page of two-column, unadorned, very small type about the backstory of the Martialist. I zoomed the PDF to its intended size only to find that the type was still inconceivably small. Of course, PDF readers, monitors and such vary, and I have a laptop at 1280 x 720 resolution, so take that as you will.

My ordeal of zooming-in treated me to a long story about a prison, which I will summarize as follows: one day there was prison, and prisoners plotted to escape, as they are wont to do, so they learned to fight really awesomely without weapons. Then they challenged the guards to football so they could beat them down. So, no quasi-asian pseudo-religion here, just Adam Sandler.

But let’s get back to what we really came for. The Martialist – an aptly named (perhaps Brawler or something would have been better, but Brawler was used as a build name) Martial Striker. It is a V-shaped class, using Strength or Dexterity for attacks and damage, and Constitution for secondary effects.

It has fairly standard hit points and HP for a striker and proficiency with leather armor, which is both good and bad. Good in that fairly standardness means it’s not broken compared to other Strikers. But it is squishy on all fronts. This ain’t a Barbarian.

They have a fairly good list of class skills and 4 trained (one of which is auto-trained). It’s nice to see that despite being a fighter, the Martialist has some skills focused on other areas and possibilities.

The first class feature of the Martialist is a bonus to armor class and very small resistance to damage, which helps. Very, very small resistance to damage is pretty pointless, but the AC makes it more than enough. My only problem with this class feature is that it does not exist at 1st level. You get it at first level, but it does nothing until 6th when you get the first AC boost. It would have been nice to get the 1st AC boost at the start, especially for the Strength-based builds that may be lacking in AC to start.

The Tools Of Handy Men

The Martialist gets freaky when it starts explaining to you some of its new keywords and its weapon proficiencies. Do you recall that a few paragraphs ago, I neglected to mention their weapon proficiencies? This is because they have none, those are rolled into the Implement of Doom feature. Certain (and by certain I mean all) of the exploits of the martialist use certain parts of the body to strike – the Crux is your body itself, then we have the fist, weak-hand, foot and head. You are proficient only with certain parts of your body, and they deal different damages and have different proficiency.

Certain exploits use only the damage and the proficiency bonus of a certain part of the body, denoted by the keywords. There are also new keywords like Grapple, Exploits that can only be done against humanoids, and there are also ones that have Weapon, which means you can use any of your body parts you are proficient with or normal weapons.

Finally, some exploits have multiple body part keywords which means when you select one as you level up, you select which keyword you use, and can only use that keyword.

You are instantly proficient with your Crux and Fist. You can then select two others from the remainder. So there will always be one that you are not proficient with. If you take a proficiency feat for these, you get all five immediately. That seems silly.

I approve of the innovation, but was this level of detail necessary? The designer clearly went through a great effort with this class to try to model martial arts of many different styles in ways that made them very distinct. I can see the designer has a great love of and must be pretty stoked on Martial Artist to add these details.

But this can be bothersome for a player who looked at the Monk (or even at the normal unarmed attack) and saw that he could just use whatever part of his body he wants in making his attacks. Though some people will love the attention to detail with this rule, others like a more abstract game. Especially in D&D 4e, which prides itself on abstractions.

Further simulationary bents get thrown in later to add to this.

Mechanically the purpose of this division seems twofold:

a) It soft-locks you from taking certain powers. You wouldn’t take a foot power without foot proficiency.

b) It allows for the creation of separate lines of feats for each body part.

Overall, I don’t really like this, but unlike, say, Wizard’s new Psion class, it works within the power system like everything else has always done. But I would have liked just an abstract unarmed strike like 4e normally has. This division means that a Martialist character has a lot of seemingly self-limiting choices and planning to make across his or her career.

It is framed in a different way that feels like you’re playing catch-up with your own body, rather than focusing on one weapon to be better at. Because a Fighter can use any of its exploits well with any weapon. But some weapons get bonuses in certain powers, rather than losing bonuses. That would have been better received by me. But companies aren’t out to please me.

For the other new keywords. The Grapple keyword is nice, I’ll talk about it in a bit. The Humanoid keyword though, I despise. Again, 4e really prides itself on abstractions. You can punch and grapple oozes because you just can, you can knock prone a dragon because you just can, be it magic, be it good luck, circumstance, however you want to explain it, you can do this.

But this keyword says you can’t. This power only works on humanoids. That is very unlike D&D 4th Edition. It even has a size restriction too. One of these, I can tolerate. Both at the same time, are just annoying.

1242218288988My reaction to the proficiency and humanoid-only mechanics in pictoral form.

My Other Car Is A Striker

The Martialist has two striker damage mechanics. One is basically a weaker version of sneak attack, and the other only works against grabbed targets, OR with powers that have the Grapple keyword. The Grapple keyword and this interaction was a nice touch that I liked. I thought that was better handled than the division of the body into the five body part keywords. Grapple attacks are nice, because if you choose the wrestler technique, you always add your extra d6s to Grapple attacks.

There are 3 suggested builds. One is a straight striker, using the sneak attack-lite feature and strength modifier and just beating on people. One is a strength grappler, using the wrestle technique and strength modifier attacks and beating on people. The third is a dextrous combatant using the wrestler technique and dexterity modifier, probably focused on Grapple attacks.

Now, a Martialist can’t enchant his or her body directly. She uses wraps, plates and straps which can be enchanted to add enhancement bonuses to the body-weapons. These wraps and so forth take up item slots in the hands or feet and so on. I don’t like this. Boots and the like already take a massive back seat to buying a bigger sword or armor in a player’s mind.

Now lots of interesting items may be out of a Martialist’s reach entirely. These wraps and things don’t cost anything by themselves, not like a sword which at 1st level costs some money. So why you can’t directly enchant your body, I don’t know. You could have had something like magic tattoos or just have the wraps and such not take up a body item slot. It seems to be more unnecessary restrictions for the sake of flavor, and it puts a small damper on things.

The Power Overwhelming

This class a has a lot of powers, and really, it has to. Because of the division of body parts, every body part needs some representation, so there have to be 5 or 6 powers at every level. Not only that, there also have to be some grapple powers. And sadly, some Humanoid powers. You can ignore them, and by virtue of only being able to affect humanoids, they’re all pretty bad by default. Many of them are unexciting on their own, so it’s okay.

It seems like a lot of choices, but realistically, since the feats to increase the damage and efficacy of your weapons are divided across the different body parts, you’ll be picking one or two body parts (and their respective powers) to focus on and the choices will narrow to those and become more manageable. For example, for 3 feats, you can pump any one of your body weapons by 3 die steps. Similarly, each of them have weapon-specific feats. So your wholy body being badass is off-limits. Pick a few, bud.

I can’t realistically portray to you every power I read or this article would be even longer than it is. But I will say a few things.

Some of the powers are good, some are average, and some have disturbing connotations.

You can see a clear division between some “great” powers and some “average” powers. But the “weak” powers didn’t seem to me to be Sure Strike level worthless, and some are even exciting. One of the 1st level dailies lets you interrupt an enemy attack with a quick jab that stuns. This is cool as hell, even if it is dealing pathetic damage, has to be done as an interrupt and lasts only until the end of your next turn. Stun at 1st level that easily is still pretty cool.

Now, some powers take decisions that clearly break away from D&D 4th Edition trends in bad ways. For example, there are quite a few Encounter powers that have (save ends) effects. What’s more, these powers have conditions like weakened, immobilized and dazed. There are very few powers (I think I counted 7) in all which do this, but you have to keep in mind that they may possibly be very unbalanced by these facts. How you react to the “broken” powers in the Martialist is your call.

There is one more part of this section that bugs me. There is short fiction apparently spread out all over the section. It doesn’t have a side-bar or anything, it just suddenly stuck between powers and it happens every page. Please don’t suddenly have three paragraphs of fantasy fiction making me scroll down to see the next power in the column. I’m really not interested in it while I read the mechanics. White Wolf puts its short fiction between chapters, where I can more easily ignore its existence.

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For your health, don’t play your martialist like you play your barbarian.

The Contested Paths (And Destinies too!)

The Martialist contains a truckload of feats and items, which I talked about previously, but they’re less important and this review is getting too large.

The Martialist has eight paragon paths.

Battlefield Sprinters are about movement. They have a bit of a controllery bent to their powers that I like, because they allow you to move past multiple enemies and attack them. You get a utility power to break out of effects that impair your movement, and the action point ability at 11th level lets you boost action point-granted move actions so you can go ridiculously fast. Overall I find it to be an okay path to broaden your Martialist’s role and style, but not for straight Strikers, as the damage isn’t huge. There is also, quite unfortunately, a Humanoid power for your Encounter. This makes it lose points in my view.

Defender of the Five Rivers has an obcene encounter power that couples good damage with dazed (save ends). This one expands upon a Defender/Leader hybrid sort of role, with an action point feature that gives allies AC, a permanent increase to your AC, and the ability to make enemies that have combat advantage against you take penalties to attacking your allies. This is a really strong path that is unfortunately sullied by that unbalanced encounter power.

The Dwarven Hammerhand focuses upon attacks that hit multiple times, either by secondary attacks or true dual-attacks. It gives you AC boosts and gives enemies penalties if you’ve stricken them multiple times in the same turn. It has a very weird clause in its Daily Power that deals more damage to creatures made of inanimate materials. It’s utility power is unbalanced, as it gives you combat damage against enemies in a close burst 3 for some rounds, as an encounter power with no attack roll.

Granite Grappler kinda steals Defender of the Five Rivers’ Defender chunk’s thunder by giving overall better bonuses to survivability AND to damage-dealing. This one boosts AC and crux damage, gives you awesome damage, and resistance to damage. This is one of the best paths for powergamers because its powers are not only strong Crux powers, they are also all Grapple powers and all deal good damage. It gets a pass from me.

Iron Fist’s encounter attack power has an insanely potent attack potential against bloodied guys. This is another path that isn’t special flavor-wise, but has some solid bonuses and solid powers. It also has that whole multiple attacks theme like the Dwarven Hammerhand.

The Tail Lasher is a modest tiefling paragon path except for its incredible daily power, which is almost like a mini blade cascade that gets attack bonuses to its subsequent attacks. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it unbalanced though, because it’s a paragon path for tieflings that uses Strength. This fact is almost sure to make people overlook it, because tieflings have absolutely 0 stat boosts to things the Martialist (and by Extension, this paragon path) cares about. Not even secondary stats!

Thin One has some really weird design choices that don’t jive with 4e, ya feelin’ me? First, it’s barred from Dwarves and Dragonborn, they’re too big to be thin ones. Wow, I dislike these races, but even I feel this treatment is unfair. Second, it has a feature with a built-in obvious drawback. You remember those?

At level 11, you gain no boost to Str, but you gain +3 to Dex, at the cost of not getting your 11th level HP. Losing like 5 hp and 1 Str from your dex-based build doesn’t balance getting +2 more Dexterity than normal. But that’s not where this ends – you gain another drawback at 14th level that forbids you from ever boosting your Strength again. Yeah, um, that’s nice. If I’m in this path, I don’t care though! Everything is dex-based here, my strength is a dump stat.

Most of the Thin One’s powers range from okay to unbalanced. The encounter power deals +1d8 damage for laughs and also gives you a power bonus to attack rolls for your pleasure, but this isn’t that bad. The Utility Power gives every enemy in a burst a penalty to reflex without an attack as an encounter power, which is bad. The daily power is pretty balanced. Overall though, this class is pretty unbalanced and generally weird, and I would block players from trying to play one.

•The Wave Knight is a water-based class. Sigh. I think Eikre Mencx from GameFAQs said it best, so I quote him:

“Swimming comes up exactly as often as the DM feels like it, and he doesn’t ever have to. People tend to go outside (fly speeds), travel near dirt (burrowing) interact with people (shapechanging) fight creatures (bonus feats) or roll dice to try and succeed at things (stat modifiers), and to think there’s any way around that is unreasonable. Those respective racial abilities are probably worth something.

Swimming never comes up. Seriously, nobody cares, and I’ll tell you why: Not everyone has swimming. If you have swimming, the other characters tell you to shove it because being anywhere where swimming has to be done all the time is just a liability. Their perspective on the situation is that Swiming is a first-level spell that gets keys out of ponds…

He was talking about racial abilities and in 3.5 context, but it fits here. Whole classes based around swimming are bad. The powers here all do good damage, but do nothing beyond good damage. Why? Because their better halves occur underwater. All the class features, and the utility, are all pertaining to water. Without water, this is just two bland straight damage powers.

The Martialist has 3 epic destinies. The first 2 are Martialist-only. The third is…oh god, the third.

•The Eternal Striker can increase potent strike d6s to d10s. If you’re playing this class, you obviously took the feat to increase the d6s to d8s. Therefore, it is pretty pointless to actually have this destiny even acknowledge the progression from d6 to d8 in the first place. Just have it jump to d10. That’s kind of a broken ability, by the way. The 30th level ability lets you make two melee basic attacks whenever you critical a guy, which have bonuses to attack and damage. The other ability lets you jack a power from another class. The utility power is perpetually trapped in the heroic tier, it seems.

•The Grappler of the Gods is pretty weak. It gains resistance to attacks against it, but only while it is grabbing, and it doesn’t stack with the class’ really pathetic resistance. It can reroll a grapple keyword attack roll once per encounter with a bonus, and at 30th level, can transfer all of an attack to somebody you have grabbed, by making a saving throw against that attack. Uhh. The power pretty much deserves to be a paragon tier feat, not an epic utility.

•Oh no. Oh god why? Why god, why? The Wave Ruler. A whole epic destiny about water.

It is insane.

Firstly, you have to be paragon multiclassing in a martial class, and you have to be a martial class, to qualify. Why? So the wave guy paragon path from the Martialist can’t get in it. I’m almost positive this is why it’s set up like that.

It’s 21st level feature lets you know the direction of the nearest large body of salt water down to the nearest mile, but only if it is 10 miles or less away. If it isn’t, the feature kindly lets you know that it is in fact farther away than 10 miles, but not where it is.

Marine Vigor, the other 21st level ability, is ridiculous. You choose a power of level 15 or lower. Whenever you are within 10 miles of a large body of salt water (oh dear God) you gain broken bonuses with this power. If it’s daily, you recharge it every short rest. If it’s an encounter power, you can use it twice during that encounter. I don’t even want to look at what powers I could abuse with this– Blade Cascade. Every Encounter.

I see visions of a powerful fighter/ranger who lives on the beach. A beach nobody knows about, because he kills everybody who comes to it in a melee of running up to them, blade cascading them to death, running away, resting for 5 minutes, then running back to kill more. He is the true Rambo of D&D, alone in a world where nobody knows his pain.

His pain of being effective only within 10 miles of a large body of salt water, but being incredibly broken if he is. Ocean Rambo knows no mercy, and the only rest he knows is the short rest to recover his blade cascade. Ocean Rambo knows only blood and death, blood that makes his beloved salt water all the more salty, and death that puts him closer to level 30.

Because level 30 is true immortality for Ocean Rambo. If he was losing, he could run to the water and swim away. As long as he’s in the water, he can’t be killed thanks to the level 30 ability. He can also only use his utility power when in contact with a large body of salt water. Except he will never use it. Because it heals. And Ocean Rambo does not heal. Ocean Rambo kills.

I take it back. This epic destiny is not crazy. It is actually incredible and allows for deep roleplaying. No pun intended.

The Final Word

As a product, I cannot fault The Martialist. It is a 74 page PDF for 8 dollars containing a whole class, with an amazing amount of powers, paths, feats, destinies and items. This is good not only for martialists but for those that multiclass into them and even for those that don’t. The black and white artwork is overall very good and contains one of the few female tiefling I have ever seen that I would consider to be hot. That is a commedable feat. The back of the book contains numerous helpful appendixes and some optional rules, which is really nice. As a product, Martialist scores, and I’m glad to see good quality coming to the 4e GSL party.

What I’m less glad to see are some of the mechanical foibles present within. Let me be clear when I say that not all of the martialist is broken or unbalanced. There’s this saying that third party stuff is either weak or broken, but I think most of the martialist manages to be in between. Not even a majority of it really seems to be unbalancing, at least to me. Between its powers, it hovers in degrees – some are good, some are merely balanced, some are a bit weak, some are really broken. But the portions that are broken stand out because they are unbalanced enough that they make you wonder – where these design gambles, design foibles, or a lack of system mastery? For example – the (save ends) encounter powers.

The class and its supplementals clearly also do some things that run counter to many things that people who play 4e look for. Some of its designs harken back to D&D 3.5. The Wave Ruler really bears mention as it is the poster boy of this. The whole 10 miles from a body of salt water thing is all swell and probably even happened in D&D 3.5, but that kind of “limited everywhere except the specific place where it is broken in half” design existed in D&D 3.5 because 3.5 was…well, 3.5. Doesn’t fly in 4e.

Overall, I would recommend you take a look at the Martialist for yourself, because it really depends on your play style. I would have liked a more abstract class, kind of like A Butterfly Dreaming’s Monk Mystic. Except, my view on this has evolved. I think, rather than being its entire class, punching people in the nads should be something everyone can learn to do well. What I really want is nad-punching socialism. However, you check out the class, and thanks very much to the Fantasy Carthographic for their giving me their product for free to review. Give me a hug guys. I love y’all.

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Categories: D&D 4e, News, Products, RPG | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “Product Review: The Martialist

  1. Your explanation of Ocean Rambo just made my day. Thanks.

  2. Telicis

    Ditto, I laughed pretty hard. Nice review, as always.

  3. Andrew

    I also think that everyone should be able to punch everyone in the balls, or at least learn to. I think that it could be something doled out to martial classes, kind of like clerics and wizards and such get ritual caster for free.

    But I also approve of a power set and feat chains for kicking ass barehanded. I think that it ought to be a matter of fluff what parts of the body you use – whether you knock people out with fists, feet, or both ought to be a purely fluff matter.

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