Knight in tarnished armor
With little fanfare in February 17th, 2015, a new 3rd Party Pathfinder product landed on the market. In spite of a similar-sounding name to Path of War, this publisher was Ascension Games, a new company with no previous works to its name. It's hard to believe that it's their first work, for it has high production values and came about as the result of a year's worth of hard work. As of this posting there's not a lot of reviews about it, but the concept is nifty enough that I picked it up myself.
So what is Path of Shadows? It is an 81-page crunch-focused book of new shadow-themed magic material, from the new Nightblade class (no, not that "nightblade") to new class archetypes, feats, spells, and magic items. Instead of focusing on a narrow purview (such as illusion spells or arcane/divine stuff), Path of Shadows explores how the powers of darkness can be utilized in many interesting and different ways.
We begin with a short introduction on how magic drawn from the Plane of Shadow often defies easy categorization. The realms' mutability allows many spellcasters the ability to replicate all kinds of effects, from convincing illusions to life-sapping negative energy. Certain individual spells, such as the famed Shadow Conjuration/Evocation line, could prepare a mage for any number of situations.
You might have noticed that the book doesn't really present shadow magic as sinister or evil, instead focusing on its variable nature. This is deliberate, for much of the material can be used by characters of any alignment. I like this alternate take, on how Shadow is more a force of nature than a creeping danger which hates all that is right and just.
Chapter 1: The Nightblade
Nightblades in short are experts of combat, stealth, and spell, utilizing the power of shadows to confuse, demoralize, and weaken their opponents. The many ways a nightblade can be taught are numerous, and they specialize in various "Paths" which grant them specialty in certain areas. For example, Path of the Bloodied Chain makes one a master of fear, utilizing the haunting rattling of spectral chains and literally feeding off of opponents' fear, Path of the Darkened Fortress allows you to create and mold raw shadowstuff into tangible material, and so on and so forth. As the game mechanics are OGL, the nightblade's write-up can be seen on D20 Pathfinder SRD.
Nightblades have spontaneous bardic-progression arcane spellcasting, and they have a versatile skill list with a decent amount of points (6 + Int modifier) per level. They are lightly-armored combatants, proficient in light armor, simple weapons plus longsword/rapier/spiked chain/scythe/short sword/shortbow, and a d8 hit die and Medium BAB progression with good Reflex and Will saves. In other words, a more offensive-minded bard.
Nightblade spells are quite versatile, ranging from common illusions such as hypnotic pattern and invisibility to area of effect attacks such as stinking cloud. They also get a few energy and evocation-focused spells, including some of the new damaging spells in this book to old standbys such as cone of cold and lightning bolt. Rounding this out are some divination techniques like clairaudience/clairvoyance, see invisibility, share memory, and the like. In spite of being spontaneous casters nightblades have a lot of magic to choose from, and certain Paths (such as Ravaging Void or Twilight Veil) can further enhance the spells which fall under their purview.
Nightblades gain some sneak-focused class features such as Evasion, the ability to gain or extend natural darkvision, hide in plain sight, and even personal-range dimension door through shadows at 11th level, but the meat of their progression lies in the Shadow Surge, Nightblade Arts, and Paths, the latter two of which provide a list of sample choices for the player to pick rather than a linear path. We'll look at Arts first.
A Shadow Surge is more akin to an activated buff spell, or a Tome of Battle/Path of War stance in that they call up inner reserves as part of an activated ability which can be used and created an unlimited number of times per day. However, summoning the energy for a surge requires a standard action, and the nightblade can only gain the benefits of one type of surge at a time (but at 8th and 17th levels the nightblade can have two or three kinds of surges active at once). The default shadow surge can be used (as in dropped that round) to make the nightblade roll twice on all Stealth checks, taking the better result. Other types of surges can be learned via nightblade arts or paths.
Nightblade Arts are techniques meant to combine the class' natural talents with their affinity for shadow. They're sort of akin to rogue talents in that they're learned at 3rd and every 3 levels thereafter, and can't be selected more than once. Some are limited-use or require a shadow surge, while some are always-active (such as a feat or negating a Stealth movement penalty). There are 20 Arts in total, so I'm not going to go over them all, but instead show off a few of the more interesting ones.
Beckoning Shadows can forcibly teleport another creature within 50 feet by using the nightblade's own Shadow Shift class feature (the dimension door one) but it has to end on solid footing and can't to into solid objects. Pretty nifty battlefield control, but it seems a little high-level (15th) to get.
Dusk Strike allows the nightblade to expend a shadow surge as a swift action to resolve a melee/ranged/natural weapon as a touch attack as the weapon phases partially into the Plane of Shadows. It's a lot like Tome of Battle's Emerald Razor or Path of War's Scarlet Eye's Perception maneuver, only this one's higher level to get (9th) and can be used more often (shadow surges are effectively infinite, even during encounters).
Fall of Night is similar in that it can blind, stagger, or exhaust an opponent, but only upon a confirmation of a critical hit and expending a shadow surge and the opponent has to fail a Fortitude save. Rather high prerequisites (15th level), and there are lower-level spells which can do similar debuffs more reliably.
Focused Cast is great because it allows the nightblade to take 10 on any concentration check for spells with the expenditure of a shadow surge.
Hidden Strike is cool because you can move at full speed without taking a Stealth penalty, and partial concealment benefits in dim light increase from 20% to 50%. Must-use for sniper builds.
Penumbral Aegis allows the nightblade to add her Charisma modifier as an untyped bonus to her touch AC (can't exceed normal AC), as latent shadowstuff redirects potentially hostile attacks. It's high-level to get (12th), but as nightblades are Charisma-focused casters this is a potentially good option if enemy mages are going to show up a lot in the campaign.
Shadow Cache allows the nightblade to store various personal belongings in a hidden space in the Plane of Shadow. It functions like the Secret Chest spell, except that its duration is indefinite until the nightblade dismisses it or is killed, needs no focus, and cannot hold creatures.
Shadow Transference allows the nightblade to manipulate the effects of other people's shadow magic, even if the spell is already in effect. Effectively the nightblade spends a shadow surge as a standard action to take the ongoing effects of a spell with the darkness descriptor and shift it onto another creature within 10 feet (Will save if applicable). In typical Pathfinder [darkness] spells which do this are rather rare, and it can't be used on spells with a range of "personal" or one which does not target one or more creatures or objects. There's quite a few new buff spells in this book which can fit this description, but the Art is situational.
Void Sight is an awesome buff, for it can grant multiple willing targets within 30 feet the ability to gain darkvision and see invisibility effects with a caster level equal to class level. Unfortunately the level-based prerequisite is steep (15th). I'd personally lower it to 7th level, and the amount of targets which can benefit are one per 3 nightblade levels anyway.
Warp Strike calls upon the Plane of Shadows to distort space itself around the nightblade, granting all melee attacks a 5 foot reach bonus with a shadow surge as a swift action. At 12th level the bonus increases by 10 feet! Alternatively, this Art can be used to reduce the penalty on ranged attack rolls by 2 or 4 (at 12th level). This is very, very good for melee-focused builds; get the Lunge feat and a reach weapon with Enlarge Person and the nightblade can be hitting foes up to 30 feet away!
Casting Art and Combat Art grant a bonus metamagic or combat feat, whereas Flexible Art grants a bonus feat of any kind but the nightblade must be at least 12th level in order to take. You know, in case you feel like taking the boring option.
As mentioned earlier, Nightblades gain access to mystic styles known as Paths, each drawing upon shadow magic in its own unique way. Each nightblade focuses on a specific tradition, and must choose one at 1st level. Once chosen, it cannot be changed. Paths grant all sorts of stuff, from new uses for shadow surges, a limited-use per-day power, techniques which are gained at 1st/5th/10th/etc levels, unique nightblade arts, additional class features and the like.
Nightblades who follow the Path of the Bloodied Chain prefer to strike fear into the hearts of their enemies, believed to originate among the kyton devils for its chain-themed powers. Its limited-use power is an AoE attack as entangling chains of darkness frighten foes upon a failed save and lower the light level in the affected area. The shadow surge can create a phantom rattling chain sound to increase the duration of fear effects, and techniques involve fear effects which can debuff the enemy while granting buffs to the nightblade for enemies they frighten. The nightblade arts are similar, although bloodied chains allows the AoE attack to inflict bleed damage.
Normally this would have a lot of the problems of fear and enchantment spells, but at 5th level it can remove such an immunity on enemies within 10 feet. I assume that this means that it can work on undead, mindless creatures, and the like, although fear effects are mind-affecting abilities; so what happens if a creature's immunity is to mind-affecting effects, but not to fear effects? That's one of the hard parts about Pathfinder's rules-heavy nature, although in such a case I'd personally rule that Bloodied Chain would work on all these creatures; being like Batman's Scarecrow is kind of the Path's theme, after all.
Nightblades who follow the Path of the Darkened Fortress focus on using shadow energy for creation, forming solid objects and even structures out of the dark mass. Its limited-use power is a customized weapon made of shadow-stuff which can gain enhancements over time, although its limited to 1 min/level. The shadow surge ability turns the user's shadow into a solid barrier as an immediate action, granting bonuses on AC and Reflex saving throws vs. incoming attacks. Techniques include gaining an arcane bond, an item creation bonus feat and even ignore some spell-specific prerequisites, the ability to ignore sneak attacks and critical hits some of the time, your own personal demiplane, and DR/Silver and immunity to critical hits and sneak attacks as the capstone 20th level ability! Nightblade arts unique to this Path include new enchantments and abilities for one's shadow-weapons, bonded object, and the ability to create lightweight (1 lb/level) objects made of quasi-real shadowstuff.
Path of the Darkened Fortress is a very powerful Path, depending on how liberal your GM is for magic item crafting in your campaign. The ability to ignore up to 5 spell prerequisites is a boon for the otherwise-limited spontaneous caster, and the Shadow Armament's effectively a free magic weapon whose properties can switch around with every summoning of it.
Nightblades who follow the Path of Eternal Night focus on the macabre discipline of death and entropy to wear down their opponents, drawing upon the barrier between the Plane of Shadow and the Negative Energy Plane. Its limited-use power can create a corruption aura of negative energy within a 5 foot radius which does not heal undead (who actually flee in panic from you on a failed Will save!) but deals damage to those within its space (including moving past them). The shadow surge is awesome, for it forces a touched enemy to roll their next d20 roll twice and take the lower result. Techniques include the ability to feed off the life energy of nearby dead/dying creatures in exchange for buffs, granting Diehard to yourself and allies within 10 feet, animating opponents' shadows to attack them as a greater shadow monster, and a bunch of undead immunities as a 20th-level capstone. Nightblade arts include similarly creepy things, like being able to teleport between corpses, corruption aura buffs, and the like.
This is a pretty cool Path, although it brings up the question of a potential negative energy aura/dead creature buff. Do blades of grass and tiny insects which die from your entropy? The corruption aura is still limited-use per day, but does not have a duration. Depending on the GM's ruling traveling through fertile lands might near-constant buff abilities.
Nightblades who follow the Path of the Ravaging Void are basically the elementalists of their class. They create powerful evocations out of raw shadowstuff, from searing flames to numbing cold. Fortunately there's quite a bit of shadow-themed evocation spells in this book, making for a worthwhile Path! Its limited-use power includes the ability to designate an area as "elemental shade," converting energy spells and magical effects cast within the area to a certain type other than sonic (so you can get a cold damage fireball, an acidic lightning bolt, etc with this). The shadow surge is a chilling ray of darkness which deals damage on a ranged touch attack (and damage increases with level); naturally it can be combined with Elemental Shade and surges , so you've got a diverse arsenal. Techniques include the ability to create a protective ward of energy resistance, granting debuffs to damage-dealing energy attacks based on their type (cold slows, for example), spending additional spell slots to cast sorc/wiz and nightblade evocation energy spells, becoming a being of pure shadow energy, and the ability to roll twice vs. spell resistance and take the better result with evocation spells as a 20th level capstone ability.
Arts are rather blase, affecting energy spells in some way, although one of them turns the elemental shade into a gravity magnet which can draw enemies towards it! It's really good because it not only can grant a huge selection of energy spells to a nightblade, the ability to switch around energy types allows the caster to customize their spells against the right kind of opponent.
The final entry, Path of the Twilight Veil, relies upon the deceptions of illusion. Its probably the thing a lot of you thought when you saw this class, but it really goes to show the imaginative use of the paths by branching beyond this archetype of shadow magic. Its limited-use power creates an area of distorted shadows which bestow random afflictions on an enemy, sort of like prismatic spray but less power. Its shadow surge allows the nightblade to turn invisible as a move action for one round per level, and cannot regain surges until the invisibility ends (its normal invisibility, so it falls when hostile action's taken). Its techniques include duration extension on illusion spells and additional spells known of that school from sorc/wizard or nightblade spell list, a wall of darkness which can entrance onlookers, a memory-modifying greater invisibility which blocks most forms of divination and can make opponents forget the nightblade was there, and can turn one concentration-duration illusion cast permanent (only one can be maintained this way at a time) as a 20th-level capstone ability.
Most of the Arts involve strengthening the limited-use power in some way, including making it so entrancing it can be used on blind and mindless creatures, but one Art allows the nightblade to roll a Bluff/Sleight of Hand opposed by Perception to disguise the fact that they are casting a spell (although spells with an obvious effect and origin, such as burning hands, cannot be concealed this way).
Illusion spells are very good and can enhance the nightblade's already-good stealth capabilities, but the large amount of mind-immune enemies at higher levels can blunt its effectiveness depending on the campaign.
Overall, the paths are rather good at what they do, although the Eternal Night one might cause some problems.
And so ends Chapter I. New chapter, we'll focus on new class archetypes with a darker twist in more ways than one!
Thoughts so far: The nightblade is a very versatile mage-thief. Its list of various powers might be overwhelming to new players, from the spell lists to the Arts to the Paths on display, and some of the Arts' prerequisites I feel can be lowered a bit. They can function as effective battlefield controllers, scouts, blaster casters, and even potential gishes with the right Arts and spells. Overall, its a class with some good promise and interesting fluff.