The Martialist Review
by Grant Howitt
The Martialist is a complete class for D&D 4e from Fantasy Cartographic, a rather hefty .pdf file giving full rules for this enigmatic class of unarmed fighter, along with various magical items and several handfuls of suitable feats to cover their progression.
The document is neatly-produced and conforms to the house style of powers laid down in the 4e rulebooks very well. i.e. Green for at-wills, red for encounters, etc. Unlike the 4e books, though, it contains full power cards to print out and use at games, and lists of exploits by both level and name. These are welcomed and a useful quick-reference technique, especially if you've yet to print out the .pdf. It's worth mentioning these pages take up a sizeable chunk of that pagecount, however.
The art - of which there are around four pieces - has the saving grace of not being the worst art I have seen in a roleplaying product. Martial artists crossed with barbarian-types are the order of the day, and they universally possess thighs big and hard enough to crack walnuts and warrant zoning permits. Take a look at that guy on the front cover. Look at his left thigh, and tell me he's entirely human.
The gist of the martialist is covered in a backstory that takes up a page in the introduction and crops up throughout the supplement; a fantasy prison full of tieflings and dragonborn that developed the ability to efficiently murder each other using only their hands and feet who were released into the countryside and had the good manners to spread their particular method of efficient murder with the other inhabitants of the world.
I'm not overly convinced by the fluff - as thin on the ground as it is, with the opening page and several scattered paragraphs that get in the way of the power descriptions that detail the exploits of martialists and their "inferior" compatriots, often throwing their enemies off nearby cliffs to resolve conflicts. It seems tacked-on, but that's not exactly breaking with tradition in terms of vanilla D&D at all levels of production - the setting is largely assumed, there's both a) dungeons and b) dragons, and some stuff in between, but it's not vital to learn precisely why Warlocks do what they do with in-character history text. The text is more intrusive than helpful overall.
The opening story contains a reference to the magical material known as "crumblestone," which crumbles when struck against human flesh or anything harder. Everything in the prison is crafted out of the stuff, which curtails the initial use of the facility as a forced mining camp and must have made mealtimes pretty difficult. Crumblestone must be pretty expensive - it's useless enough to be rare as I can't imagine that there would be a great demand for the stuff, and someone has to mine it (somehow) and craft it (somehow) and deliver the items to the prison (without them breaking against each other), and then replace items when they're dropped or passed between hands or looked at funny. Seeing as the prisoners aren't making money - and are, in fact, costing quite a bit of money - surely execution would have been a better plan all round?
Also, crumblestone is a silly name.
The Martialist (now I write it out properly, I'm beginning to think it's a very generic name - "Brawler," perhaps?) fights, as mentioned, without conventional weapons and instead uses the array of natural weapons that the class can train in - fist, "weak-fist", kick, headbutts, body, etc. This is a welcome change from the standard, in that characters are offered a variety of weapon options within their weaponless class - and 4e is all about variety, as we are well aware.
As the Martialist class builds are competing within the already oversubscribed field of Martial Striker, they've covered their bases as well as they can - options range from "hit people really hard in the face" to "grab people and hurt them" and finally "not get hit by people and subsequently hit them." In a world where martial characters have to compete with clerics pulling magic beams of light down from the heavens and barbarians morphing into predator beasts, they've got their work cut out for them to stand out from the crowd.
Martialists achieve this by placing their role as striker in the forefront of their character development - much like the fighter, they hit people, and the details can be worked out afterwards - and in play they operate in a style somewhere between an American football blitzer and a pro wrestler, getting to their intended target not by misdirection, stealth or teleportation, but by slamming into anything that gets in their way and chucking it aside en route.
It's a welcome change of pace for the striker, but it's one fraught with danger as the Martialist lacks an abundance of evasive powers. Too often they are bogged down by the grunts they wish to evade, and their general badassery isn't backed up by enough hitpoints to make secondary tanking an option.
That said, there are various cocktails of attacks and exploits that can be lined up into special moves - at first level it is possible - as an encounter power - to punch a creature in the face for double damage and get a 5ft bonus to an immediate jump check. This power alone opens up some exciting tactics, and the various disabling and debuffing attacks can ruin someone's day.
The various options are certainly interesting, but let down somewhat by their names, which range from anachronistic (Faceplant) to needlessly alliterative (Feast of Foot and Fist) to oddly artistic (Martialist as Vice) to uninspiring (Deliberately Slow) to unthreatening (Calming Push) to just plain daft (To Dance, Perchance to Die).
A huge list of feats accompanies the character creation rules giving a wide variety of options for character development, as long as those options fall within the bounds of "hit people harder with specific parts of my body." There's nothing in the way of character building in terms of rules, although the option for tieflings to nut people with their horns is a pleasing concept. Given the unarmed nature of the Martialist, many of their feats improve their damage dice and offer a straight mechanical benefit, superseding the usefulness of other, more characterful, feats.
Also included are full magic item rules for martialists, unable as they are to use most magic armour and weapons. Limited as they are to cloth and leather, most of their items are wrapped around a particular extremity and brought into violent contact with an assailant. The list is comprehensive and well-thought out, although the multiple parts of the body used by martialists as requirements of certain exploits limit the overall effectiveness of any one magic item.
If you can't wait until the release of the monk in PHB3 - and have a burning desire to punch things to death - then this class is a viable option. It's functional enough and contains comprehensive information on how to include this new class into an existing campaign setting, but it's stuck with an inescapable thirdpartyness, a lack of polish in both prose style and rule cohesion, that prohibits it from being a great supplement.
While the idea of a standalone class for 4e is not something that's been done much before, this product fails to offer value for money when compared to a professional product such as the Player's Handbook 2, which aside from having higher production values, tighter rules and more interesting concepts (and existing in hardcopy) is actually cheaper on a class-for-class basis than this product. It fills a niche, sure - the unarmed, brutal fighter - but unless you're looking specifically to play said character, there's not much in the way of inspiration to be found here.
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