Review – Ultimate Intrigue (Pathfinder RPG)

PZO1134            Ultimate Intrigue is the latest large supplement from Paizo for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. Following on the heels of Ultimate Magic and Ultimate Combat, Ultimate Intrigue puts the spotlight not only on campaigns involving intrigue, but on a variety of social interactions, use of social skills in combat, and more broadly on campaigns where the action is focused in a particular urban area (as opposed to constant dungeon runs). Ultimate Intrigue is a 256-page, full-color hardcover, and retails for about $45.

The Quick Take: Very good at what it does, but what it does is a bit narrow.

 

Contents

Not created by Bob Kane.
Not created by Bob Kane.

New Character Class: The Vigilante – You ever wanted to play Batman in a Pathfinder campaign? Well, now you can. The vigilante leads a double life, acting as a respectable, renowned figure in their social role, while being an intimidating and stealthy bruiser in their vigilante role. The vigilante gets a variety of core abilities that protect their dual identity, chooses to either upgrade to a full base attack bonus or get a sneak attack variant, and gets abilities that make ambushes more effective. Beyond that, the vigilante alternates levels between social talents and vigilante talents, which (as one might expect) enhance that role. Social talents include fame, disguise, or better ability to protect and manage the two identities. The vigilante talents, which are quite varied, include movement (running across rooftops), stealth, feinting, being harder to kill, and a variety of Rogue-like opens (for example, evasion).

The vigilante, I think, is a narrower concept than most character classes. Traditional dungeon crawls and other adventures have little call for maintaining a dual identity, and a lot of the class options are best in urban environments – take the vigilante out of the class’s sweet spot, and you’re sort of left with a somewhat lackluster rogue. This makes sense, since Ultimate Intrigue is focused on a particular kind of campaign style, but keep in mind that the vigilante may have less suitability to plug-and-play usage than some other parts of the book.

 

PZO1134-AricNew Archetypes – Beyond the new vigilante class, Ultimate Intrigue includes at least one archetype (and up to half a dozen) for pretty much every existing character class (around 75 total, by my count). These archetypes reflect the diversity and foci of the book, and have several repeating themes. These include archetypes that add social skills and abilities to classes that might otherwise lack them (courtly knight, dandy, courtly hunter, sage counselor, ancestral aspirant, velvet blade), focus the class for a more urban/factional campaign (faith hunter, guildbreaker, guild agent, heister, zeitgeist binder, roof runner), focus on a particular sort of social interaction (interrogator, secret seeker, instigator, warlord), conveying communications (impervious messenger, code runner, transporter), teamwork and leadership (ringleader, daring general, tactical leader, majordomo, vizier, consigliere, battle scion, guiding blade, cardinal), make use of the new verbal dueling rules (wit), disguise (metamorph, masked performer, skinshaper, master of disguise), other deception/stealth (cloaked wolf, traceless operative, umbral stalker, cipher, conspirator, enigma, sharper, veiled blade), or thwarting disguise and deception (sentinel). There are also several fey-related archetypes (feyspeaker, fey trickster, fey caller) – these might show up because of a fey affinity for illusion and enchantment magic, but I’m not sure.

Even the new vigilante class gets new archetypes, and a lot of them, many of which significantly change the nature of the vigilante’s secret identity. They include the brute (be Hulk instead of Batman), the cabalist (secret identity is a blood magician), gunmaster (what it sounds like), magical child (a magical girl anime archetype, complete with a transformation sequence), the mounted fury (yup, you get a mount), psychometrist (secret physic), warlock (secret arcane spellcaster), and wildsoul (powers of an animal … including spiders as one of the options), zealot (religious).

PZO1134-VizierMesmeristSome of my favorite new archetypes include the forensic physician (an investigator archetype who trades in some trap-related abilities and a couple of talent selections in order be better at medical mysteries), the dandy (a ranger archetype who selects countries as favored enemies, and whose favored terrain is the court), and the zeitgeist binder (a spiritualist archetype that channels the emotional energy of a community).

 

New Feats and Spells – Ultimate Intrigue also includes around 100 new feats and around 100 new spells. As with the archetypes, the feats cover a broad array of foci, but the feats are particularly heavy on enhancements to social interaction skills (Diplomacy, Bluff, Sense Motive, Intimidation, Disguise, Perception). Stealth, Acrobatics, and Sleight of Hand get additional options as well. Spellcasters can look forward to a lot of divination, illusion, and enchantment spells – acquire information, hide information, and manipulate behavior.

 

Verbal Duels – Over about six pages, Ultimate Intrigue presents rules for verbal duels, a (typically) one-on-one exchange where two contestants engage in a battle of wits and words, usually (but not necessarily) trying to win over an audience (be that a mob, a judge, a potential customer, or someone else). At the start of the duel, characters choose tactics that will play to their strengths, cut against the opponent’s weaknesses, and play to the crowd. A character with skill at Perform (comedy) might seek to bait their opponent, while a high Knowledge skill might be used to invoke logic. The characters engage in series of exchanges, upping the ante until one character fails and loses determination. Certain tactics, feats, and class features can provide re-rolls, allow different skills to be used, or switch the applicable attribute off of Charisma.

The verbal duel mechanics probably have a limited application, even in an intrigue setting (especially if they are one-on-one duels that will leave the rest of the party as bystanders). But they do provide a solid way to portray dramatic social scenes, where the stakes and the tension deserve something more than a single opposed roll.

 

PZO1134-WarlockVigilanteMastering Intrigue – In addition to advice on elements and themes of intrigue-focused game, this chapter contains six small system sections, plus very detailed advice on how spells can be used (or ruin) an intrigue based game (especially divination). The most handy of these, I think is influence, which gives the GM a tool to track the party’s standing with different NPCs or factions in an area, and what that standing means when it comes time to determine whether a group by help the characters – or actively seek their harm. It’s a good system, once you get through it, but I must admit that I found it befuddling to read the first time – it felt like the introduction needed some work for clarity, and it wasn’t until I got several pages in and saw what a social stat block was that I really grokked what the book had been talking about. But once I got over that hump, I think this is a system that would be very heavily used by a GM in an intrigue campaign.

Rules for nemeses could be handy, in that they’re a great thing for an intrigue campaign to have, although I’m not sure if a separate system is needed for tracking how much your nemesis hates you. There are several variants on Leadership, including versions that let you take the feat as a weaker version at an earlier level (e.g., you get a groom), but then have it automatically be replaced with Leadership itself once you meet the prerequisites. There’s also some advice on cohorts and followers, and a listing of effective levels for some potential monstrous cohorts.

Rules are provided for heists, where the players will get to have their characters play out one of those overly intricate plots to steal something (good luck with that, GM). There are also pursuit rules, which are designed to cover slower pursuits than the faster-paced chases covered by the rules in the GameMastery Guide. The final rules here are for research, which provides a more complicated framework than a single roll to determine what the characters can learn digging around in that library. It adds complexity, but I’m not sure that it adds enough of the intended drama to be worth it, as the rules kind of come down to rolling to “attack” the library and then doing “damage” to its knowledge points until it coughs up the information (and it isn’t like the library hits back).

 

Social Conflicts and Skills in Conflict – These are both contained in the “social combat” chapter (along with the verbal duels), but that label is something of a misnomer, and I think these easily could have been in the Mastering Intrigue chapter. The social conflicts section provides a rough sketch for gamemasters of how to organize and pace social conflicts, using “events” instead of combat encounters – discovery events to learn information and challenge events to accomplish tasks. Advice is provided on how to adjudicate these events, and how to reward success at challenge events (including social standing, xp, and/or treasure). Skills in conflict is a very nitty-gritty section, providing detailed advice on how to handle specific situations with the skills that come up so much in this book (Bluff, Diplomacy, Disguise, Intimidate, Perception, Stealth, Sense Motive).

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Gear/Magic Items – As you can probably guess by now, the mundane and magical equipment in Ultimate Intrigue plays strongly to the book’s themes. Non-magical gear is heavily focused on ways to conceal things. The magical gear is broader in scope, including anti-divination, lockpicking, ways to mess with your opponents’ heads, a variety of ways to combat lying, illusions, and other sneakiness … and, of course, more ways to help a character be sneaky.

Being a fan of anything resembling a bag of holding, I was taken with the black marketeer’s bag, which is like a handy haversack but with a mundane primary storage and no aura of magic to give away the extra-dimensional pockets.

 

Opinion

If you read the quick take at the start of this review, then you’ve already got the gist of this section. There are some of the new mechanics that might be a bit too fiddly to be worth it, but overall Ultimate Intrigue provides a lot of important rules systems and character options for running a Pathfinder campaign that is focused on an urban or courtly setting, with repeat appearances by lots of NPCs, and where the interactions in town are the bulk of the game, rather than simply a waystation between dungeons. However, a healthy number of those systems and options are very focused on that sort of gameplay, and may have limited applicability outside of it. It is, I suppose, a flip of what I thought about Occult Adventures, which to me did not succeed as well at presenting a way to really embody that style of game within the Pathfinder rules, but provided materially that was mostly universally applicable. Of course, with 75 archetypes, 100 spells, 100 feats, and a pile of equipment, some of the character options having limited applicability means there’s still a lot of general use material in Ultimate Intrigue.

Promotional consideration was provided in the form of a review copy.


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