DM’s Guild Review: The Complete Martialist Handbook

You can buy the Complete Martialist Handbook HERE.

You can find the FREE Incomplete Martialist Handbook HERE.

I want to be up-front about something before I review this book. I LOVE the Sterling Vermin Adventuring Company. I’ve bought all of their Dungeon Master’s Guild content, I follow their blog, and I even support them on Patreon. We’ve used their Magus class and their Saurian race in our home campaign, and I’m pretty sure one of my players is going to run a Pugilist pretty soon.

So when I saw that the Complete Martialist Handbook dropped, I couldn’t click “buy” fast enough.

But that doesn’t mean I’m going to be lenient with this review. Let’s dive in, shall we?

The Breakdown

The book is divided into four chapters: Martialist Archetypes, Weapons, Feats, and Magic Items.

Chapter 1: Martialist Archetypes

The Martialist Archetypes chapter takes up the majority of the book and includes 16 subclasses for the Barbarian, Fighter, Ranger, and Rogue. About a third of them focus around either adding spells to non-casting classes (the Rune Sage, Sylvan Warden, Crusader, and Zealous Inquisitor) or amplifying the spellcasting potential of the ranger class (Geomancer). The others cover a variety of thematic archetypes like the War Chief Barbarian, Gladiator Fighter, Bounty Hunter Ranger, or Apothecary Rogue.

Most of them are well-designed, too. Some features might get a little odd here or there (the Gladiator’s “Roar of the Crowd” is a 7th-level feature that deals psychic damage based on how many allies are nearby?), but overall I really enjoy them.

The low points are definitely the new barbarian Primal Paths. The Rune Sage is a really cool idea—a warrior that paints and tattoos runes onto their skin to gain arcane power—but many of the features feel either underpowered or overly-complicated. And the Sylvan Warden just had me confused over some of the design choices. It gives you druidic spells, which feels cool and appropriate for the barbarian. But rather than adapt them to the barbarian’s current themes, it decides to completely upset those themes by introducing a new kind of rage that instead puts you into a trance-like state and requires you to cast a spell each round to maintain. I’m reminded of something Mike Mearls often says during his “Happy Fun Hour” streams: when he designs subclasses, he specifically does not want a character’s entire playstyle to change upon reaching their subclass level. He doesn’t want a fighter to run around in heavy armor swinging a greatsword for two levels just to stay relevant in combat, then suddenly have to forsake their armor and weapons and change their primary ability score to Wisdom to become the “ascetic warrior” or whatever. The Sylvan Warden feels like this kind of mistake.

And the Skinchanger is…fine, I guess?

Additionally, I think a couple of the options feel a little rote. The Combat Medic fighter focuses the entirety of its lifespan around a single healing mechanic that, frankly, isn’t that exciting or interesting. Similarly, the Apex Predator ranger is a really cool idea: a ranger that takes inspiration from the powerful beasts of the world, choosing to fight with tooth and nail rather than weaponry. But in the end, it really just feels like an excuse to add a couple monk/pugilist abilities onto the ranger, rather than something truly unique.

Beyond that, though, I’m actually really impressed with the options presented. The War Chief barbarian has a variety of battle cries that it uses to inspire and maneuver allies or disparage foes, turning it into something of a marshal or warlord. The Gunslinger fighter is JAM-PACKED with flavor, making deadeye shots, choosing to wear a black or white hat, and even gaining the ability to whistle and call forth a steed from just about anywhere. And basically all of the rogue subclasses are excellent, with special mention going to the Bouncer, which literally beats the crap out of their enemies by using other enemies as weapons.

I could go on and on, but I honestly don’t want to spoil it for you. Suffice it to say, this chapter gets a thumbs up.

Chapter 2: Weapons

The Weapons chapter provides a list of 17 new weapons from various Eastern cultures, as well as a small selection of black powder firearms. It also introduces the Defensive, Unarmed, and Black Powder weapon properties, and re-balances firearms to bring them in line with crossbows, mechanically.

This chapter is short (one page short) but sweet. All the weapons are on-point, and the firearms especially just seem fun to use, getting names like Boomstick, Hand Cannon, and Six Shooter, rather than simply shotgun, pistol, and revolver.

I also appreciate that the designers didn’t just add in a bunch of new weapons for the sole purpose of adding new things. Each weapon presented uses a new property or mechanic, earning its place on the list, rather than just being a different kind of sword that could have used the statistics of a longsword or greatsword.

The one thing I would have liked was to see some new types of armor and maybe some racial or cultural weapons for dwarves, elves, halflings or other fantasy races. As we’ll see in the next chapter, the designers doubled down on the idea that different cultures use very specific fighting styles, and I would have liked to see some of that reflected with unique arms and armor.

Chapter 3: Feats

The Feats chapter includes 18 new feats, mostly focused around various combat styles. Each feat seems designed to add new options for characters in combat across a wide array of weapons.

The Combat Style feats range from racial combat styles, like the dwarven method of hitting things very, very hard with axes and hammers, to real-word examples, like fencing or staff-fighting, all the way to fun, fantastical fighting styles, like the “Miner” feat that gives you special actions when fighting with a pickaxe, or the “Whip Master” feat that lets you snatch weapons from your opponents’ hands.

There are additional feats that don’t necessarily focus on combat styles, as well, granting benefits like minor healing ability, resistance to psychic damage, or the ability to craft poisons without expending money or resources.

Overall, I really like the feats here. One or two of them might fall into the “trap” category, and could be considered a waste (*cough* Inexhaustible *cough*), but as a whole, I love anything that adds new options to 5th edition’s combat system, and these do plenty of that.

Chapter 4: Magic Items

Finally, the Magic Items chapter includes 36 new magic items to be used in your games, mostly weapons and armor. There are too many for me to go into any real detail, but I will say that I don’t think there’s a single “miss” in the chapter. They all seem very well designed and interesting to use, and I can’t wait to throw them at my players to see what they’ll do.

Just for fun, though, some of my favorites include:

  • The Weapon of Bloodletting, Armor of Blood Drinking, and Helm of Exsanguination, which when used together become a legendary item set that grants the user a variety of strange and powerful benefits and absolutely feels like it belongs in Kill la Kill.
  • The Firebelcher, a boomstick that simply has the best name ever.
  • The Headband of the Sifu’s Favor, because a lesser designer would have used the word “sensei.”
  • The Omnistriker, because who doesn’t love Cloud Strife (hint: It’s me, but I love this weapon anyway).
  • Ramuh’s Katar, because the Final Fantasy references need to keep on coming.
  • The High Noon Straightshooter, because it’s the only item in any edition of D&D that lets me live out my The Quick and the Dead fantasies.
  • …and The Whirlwind Boomerang, because I saw what you did there.

Conclusion

This book is great. Go buy it. The end.

Okay, but really? This book is actually very well-made. The design is (for the most part) dead on, the production values are as high for a Sterling Vermin book as they’ve ever been, and the content is the kind of stuff that I WANT to see more of in D&D. This book is crammed full of cool ideas. And even if those ideas don’t always work (lookin’ at you, Sylvan Warden), they’re still incredibly cool and interesting.

More than that, though, this book is full to the brim with what I love most about Sterling Vermin’s work: fun and interesting flavor. Whether it’s naming firearms after quotes from Evil Dead, letting a ranger transform into something called a Boulderbear, or making a Spanish Inquisition joke in the Zealous Inquisitor archetype, this book is just fun to READ, and I can’t wait to use it at the game table (seriously, the idea of a player running a Paramour rogue and telling me that they want to communicate using the “Language of Love” fills me with infinite joy).

This book is great. Go buy it. The end.

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