Tuesday, March 28, 2017
I decided to pick up Heroes of the High Court because a PC I'd been running for a while is a noblewoman and I thought I might find some good material for her in a book designed for PCs involved with royalty and noble intrigue. Alas, my character died this past weekend (aboleths!), but I'll still review this book anyway. As with all entries in the Pathfinder Player Companion line, this is a 32-page full colour book. The inside back cover is a reproduction of the cover, while the inside front cover is a depiction of six different signet rings and possible interpretations they could hold. It's a weird feature, but not necessarily a bad one (at least for people, like me, with zero in the way of artistic ability). The interior is literally divided into about fifteen different two-page long sections, which makes summary a bit of a chore. But if you stick with me, I'll try to move fast.
1. "Introduction/Rules Index": There's a couple of exceedingly-obvious paragraphs of introduction, followed by very short (one paragraph each) descriptions of some of the more prominent noble courts in the official campaign setting of Golarion: the Black Dome (Sothis), Castle Overwatch (Lastwall), the Imperial Palace of Egorian (Cheliax), the Imperial Palace of Oppara (Taldor), the Palace of Fallen Stars (Numeria), Queen Edasseril's Court (Kyonin), and the Umbral Court (Nidal). Each court receives a background trait; most are Social traits, but a couple are Magic or even Combat. Most don't actually have much to do with nobility in particular, and relate more to the culture of the region than anything.
2. "Playing a Noble": This section introduces five new feats (three of which are Story Feats), each of which is themed around being a different type of noble: Aspiring Noble, Enlightened Noble, Noble Impostor, Noble Stipend, and Self-Exiled Noble. Next, there's over a dozen new benefits that can be taken with the Noble Scion feat (from the Inner Sea World Guide book) relating to different regions of Golarion. Most of the benefits are fairly minor.
3. "Court Entertainers": Two new archetypes, one for Bards ("Court Fool") and one for Skalds ("Court Poet"), as well as three new Bardic masterpieces. I really like the Court Fool archetype and it seems like a natural role for a Bard, but the Skald archetype is a bit strange as it involves improving allies' "aesthetic sensibilities" (non-physical attributes).
4. "Royal Defenders": Three new archetypes, one for Fighters ("High Guardian"), one for Gunslingers of all things ("Thronewarden"), and one for Witches ("Witch-Watcher"). Witches also get two new hexes and a new patron choice, Protection. The Gunslinger archetype seems okay to me, the Witch archetype really needs much more flavour (it's very bland conceptually), and the Fighter archetype seems like a really bad choice, as the character loses several bonus combat feats in exchange for getting very specific feats with restrictions on them.
5. "Arcane Retainers": Four new spells, three new Alchemist discoveries, and a new Alchemist archetype ("Royal Alchemist"). The artwork accompanying this archetype is pretty cool, but the archetype itself seems like a very, very complicated way to essentially give allies some modest bonuses against disease and poison. I've noticed a trend in Pathfinder game design of giving various class features "pools" of points that do various different things depending on the number of points spent, and I'm not sure if it's a good one for gameplay.
6. "Orders of Chivalry": One new archetype for Cavaliers ("Gallant"), one for Paladins ("Virtuous Bravo"), and the introduction of a new category of magic items called Favors. The Gallant really doesn't do much, but the Virtuous Bravo basically adds Swashbuckler class abilities to a Paladin chassis and definitely provides a different feel for a character with them. Favors are one-use only minor magic items given to a character as a reward or token of admiration for services rendered; I like the concept, though most are pretty expensive considering their minor mechanical effects.
7. "Courtly Races": All of the Core Rulebook races get short (two to three paragraph) entries on what their royal courts are like, along with an alternate racial trait. My favourite of the bunch is "Conservative Diplomacy" for dwarves, which says that they treat any roll of 5 or less on a Diplomacy check as a 5, but any roll of 15 or better as a 15. The mechanical effect ties in really well with the flavour explanation and it makes perfect sense.
8. "Courts of the East": This section contains description of noble life in Jalmeray and Katheer (two areas of the campaign setting that don't receive as much coverage as others), which is more useful than the fairly generic description in the previous section. There's also two new feats, a new Oracle archetype ("Inerrant Voice"), and a new Psychic discipline ("Pageantry"). I have to confess to not knowing much about Psychics (apart from a terribly inept attempt to create one), but the Pageantry discipline looks pretty powerful; I will note, however, that the abilities it grants do not seem particularly well-tied to a "pageantry" theme. Function should follow form here, and it doesn't.
9. "Courts of the Dragon Empires": Brief overviews of four Tian royal courts are provided: Minkai, Po Li, Tianjing, and Xa Hoi. There's also four new feats and a new Occultist ritual. Again, I appreciate seeing some options themed around areas of Golarion outside the Inner Sea, even if the options aren't always as well-tied to the flavour as they should be.
10. "Ecclesiastical Courts": This section includes very brief (one paragraph each) introductions to the royal courts of Cheliax, Mendev, Druma, Razmiran, and Nidal, along with five new feats loosely themed to each. I really like the feats in this section: creative and useful. Two new clerical subdomains are also added, "Chivalry" and "Sovereignty."
11. "Invested with Divinity": This entire section is about a major new Monk archetype, the "Invested Regent." Again, the archetype grants a pool of points which which the character can do special things (and this pool is separate than the Monk's Ki pool). There's three new feats, each of which requires the archetype as a prerequisite. The powers granted to a character with the archetype just don't seem to have much to do with the flavour of the concept, and appeared to be a bit randomly chosen to me.
12. "Enemies of Rule": An archetype each for the Slayer ("Butterfly Blade") and Vigilante ("Dragonscale Loyalist") and three new spells for infiltrating and detecting impostors. The archetypes in this section were much better than in the previous section, and it's good to see Vigilantes getting some attention in a book that would seem to be a natural place for them to shine.
13. "Conduct and Decorum": This section introduces some new ways to use existing skills, such as using a Knowledge (nobility) check instead of Sense Motive to determine if someone is feigning noble blood. I like the concept overall, though some of the options seem more complicated than necessary in order to accomplish a relatively rare task. The verbal duel rules from Ultimate Intrigue receive support with four new tactics; I'm a big believer that new rules sub-systems should be supported beyond the book they're introduced in, so I was happy to see this.
14. "Courtly Regalia": Seven new mundane and magical articles of clothing or accessories to make every noble look (and act) their best. My favourite by far is "Phantom Entourage", which does exactly as the name implies--it creates illusory assorted sycophants and hangers-on to make it clear to everyone just how important the (actually unimportant) wearer is. There's also a new Occultist archetype called the "Silksworn." The concept has been quite popular in the Paizo forums, though again I'll cop to not knowing enough about the class to offer an opinion.
15. "Implements of Rule": Several new magic items, including crowns and scepters, as well as a new type of magic items, thrones. Thrones are interesting because they provide benefits to the monarch sitting on them as well as anyone who makes an obeisance (like kneeling or other gesture of allegiance) before it. I could imagine thrones as an excellent way to add some interesting effects to "boss fights" without risking PCs getting their hands on something so powerful that it will upend campaign balance.
So you can see from the summary above that the book is chock-full of new options. Contrary to what one might expect, there's no particular focus on the classes that seem more naturally aligned to courtly settings (like Bards, Paladins, Vigilantes in their social guises, etc.). Instead, this book has a "satisfy everyone with something for everyone" approach. My feelings after reading it are of mild disappointment. There's no heart or style to the book; the writing in each section is functional but pedestrian, and it's never inspiring or passionate about a rarely-touched area of Pathfinder gameplay that deserves better. I know most buyers of these books want as much "crunch" as can possibly be fitted between two covers, but the book suffers for it in terms of cohesiveness and enduring contribution to the game.