Trailblazer, New Horizons in 3.5 Roleplaying, by Benjamin Durbin, released by Bad Axe Games, gets very little attention these days, which is a shame. Defined by its author as a “system optimizer”, this 157-pages B&W book has a bold purpose: analyze, identify and rebuild the main mechanical issues of D&D 3rd Edition. While many may see this attempt as an excuse for house ruling or pushing one particular point of view of the d20 engine, the author really approaches the question with a very thorough and sincere way – clearly showing the steps behind each of his decisions. For example, in the sixth page he defines the overall points that Trailblazer seeks to address: first level PC are too vulnerable; the power curve is too steep; “the 10 minute adventuring day”. Benjamin Durbin also uses icons to identify the nature of each rule change. At this point it worth mentioning that Trailblazer was released almost alongside the Pathfinder Core Rulebook itself – at the time only the Alpha and Beta documents of Paizo were available to the author, if I’m not mistaken.
The first part of Trailblazer is devoted to analyze and “reengineer” the d20 system, starting with what is the called Spine – a group of charts with the building blocks behind the CR system, and PCs x monster statistics. From the Spine charts’ analyzes, the author faces the issue of the “Big Six” items required in the 3rd Edition engine to keep the PC’s abilities in par with monsters and challenges, addressing each kind of bonus and how to create different options. Then we get a similar treatment to character base classes and monster customization. The insights given here already make Trailblazer an enjoyable read.
Finally we get to first and more radical change: a new rest mechanic of 10 minutes that allows the party to recover many of the power and resources that before were accessible only on a daily basis. In fact, this includes most “per day” class abilities – some spells may require an action point spend to reflect their higher utility or effect (spells are divided in the categories rote, restricted and ritual). Action points can also be used to recover part of the character’s HPs. There is also a new iterative attack system that greatly simplifies combat while improving slightly the math behind “attack x damage” – most characters now don’t execute more than 2 attacks per round (and all with the same modifier).
As you can see, Benjamin Durbin incorporates Action Points fully into the d20 system – using them to balance certain abilities and as a plot protection device (in the places like low saving throws). The rules include a charming party pool system, special spends usable only for important NPCs and monsters, and Action Points Enhancements – abilities gained by the PCs that changes the way APs can be spent (and organized by archetypal roles like “mentor” or “defender”).
The next part deal with ability scores (practically no changes here), character level advancement benefits, races, classes, skills, feats and equipments. Spellcasting progression (slots and known spells) is unified in one general table (caster level also uses a Base Magic Bonus, to correct multiclass issues).
The base classes’ alterations are my favorite, with very simply yet interesting mechanics like the druid’s wild shape, the fighter’s expert weapon proficiency and rogue’s and monk’s centered bonus (a bonus to BAB gained in some situations or by following some restrictions). A particular design decision that I find daring but totally approve is the removal of the animal companion as a class feature – ranger and druid now posses to speak with animals at will and must use Diplomacy and other social skills to keep animals as allies (from a role-playing point of view, a far preferable choice). Familiars also get a simplified mechanic – gone are the statistics and (little useful) traditional abilities, replaced by a group of fixed bonus and powers (a lot more useful in my opinion). Familiars are now more like spirits than real animals with magical powers. Skills, feats and equipments get few modifications, normally just some commentaries or rule’s analyzes (especially in weapons). The skill system appears to be inspired most by the Pathfinder later playtest documents.
Ok, now combat. Two words: Combat Reactions! Combat Reactions are probably the best innovation to d20 combat to the date. They unify and replace the aid another action and attacks of opportunity by a pool of reactions per round that can be used to accomplish similar objectives (and a few more tricks). This new tactical layer makes combat a more engaging and fun situation, rewarding the teamwork aspect of D&D. Basically you can use one of your Combat Reactions to aid attack, aid defense, dodge, parry or to execute an attack of opportunity (which are themselves greatly simplified). The author also unifies other subsystems, as in the Combat Exploits rules. Turning also gets a more practically mechanic. The various special attacks, like Grapple and Trip, are unified in the Combat Maneuvers mechanic – now quite the same but very similar to Pathfinder.
After a chapter dedicated to Exploration and Magic (the last one with modification to troublesome spells like polymorph and summon monster) we come upon Encounters and Challenges. Like Pathfinder and D&D 4th, Trailblazer uses an encounter XP budget, based on a fixed amount of XP per Challenge Rating. There are also very simple rules for Elite and Solo monsters that can be used right on the spot, without any math or complication.
Trailblazer is an excellent sourcebook for 3rd Edition groups dissatisfied with any part of the system (or who are open to improvements), but that doesn’t want to go 4th Edition. It’s also a very entertaining read for rules-minded DMs. Trailblazer is useful even if you play Pathfinder, since many of its modifications can be incorporated in other d20 systems – like Iterative attacks and Combat Reactions. I can’t recommend it enough, especially now with Pathfinder consolidated as its own game, this great rules add-on can’t be forgotten.