A Lambast of Deplorable Design
I recently came across a rules question referring to the metamorph alchemist, an archetype I had hitherto never heard of, and subsequently investigated. It is, simply speaking, some of the strangest design I have ever seen. It is mind-boggling to me that this was written, edited, published, and made legal for Society play.
Let’s take this from the top. You lose swift alchemy, swift poisoning, instant alchemy, the ability to make extracts, everything to do with bombs, and mutagen. Wait, now we get mutagen back? I guess that just makes sure this archetype is not nor will ever be compatible with other archetypes (such as the Rage Chemist). Hell, the author even added Disguise to class skills. Really went scorched earth on those compatibilities.
It isn’t really an alchemist at this point. Hell, I don’t think it even has any honest-to-god stat dependencies, though you’re definitely going Strength based melee bruiser. Dex would work with an agile amulet of the mighty fists, I suppose, but most of the better forms are big.
It keeps poison resistance, mutagen, and discoveries. You can’t really do extract, potion, or bomb discoveries though…so one will mostly end up spending in the ‘Other Discoveries’ category. The first Discovery you take, however, is the Feral Mutagen. It nets you 2 claws and a bite whenever you drink your mutagen, which can add another attack or two to one of your morphed forms in late levels. Decent options from the ‘Others’ are psychokinetic tincture, extra limbs/twin, (Unfortunately, your extra limbs won’t come with you if you change forms so far as I can tell), tumour familiars, and mummification. One actually has to take the preserve organs discovery to go mummy though, because the adaptive physiology feature only works similarly to preserve organs. It isn’t actually preserve organs. Fast healing could be nice in a pinch as well, I guess. I mean, what else are you spending your discoveries on?
Here’s what you get in return: you can alter self until 5th level, then you can morph into monster dudes that can give you different movement types, natural attacks, darkvision, and scent. You get hours/level of the form, so at least there’s that. There are plenty of Medium sized monstrous humanoids that are quite high CR, but keep in mind the limitations of monstrous form I. We’re only getting senses, movement, and natural attacks. This is why I suggest the Gargoyle, for 4 natural attacks and a fly speed. The Charda is another potent option, offering some water navigation ability and a whopping 5 natural attacks, though Small size probably hurts our damage. Notably, the Popobala is quite nice before level 9 (or even after). While Medium, it has a fly speed, and 6 natural attacks (some are secondary). At level 11, the monstrous physique SLA also grants Popobala forms frightful presence, grab on some of its attacks, and rend.
That’s really it though. That’s a huge problem: this class really does nothing interesting until 9th level. It can mutagen to get a physical stat bump sometimes, but that’s just a less flexible rage that requires an hour to re-prepare. It has no bonus feats, paltry secondary class feature boosts from discoveries, light armor and simple weapon proficiencies, and the forms and abilities we’re limited to are occasional conveniences at best. The only real play I see here is to power attack with as many natural attacks as you can. You’ll be a glorified Expert with more attacks and a fly speed, but you’ll get by.
At level 9, the other major problem comes into view. The metamorph starts to quickly ramp in power beyond what is acceptable in polite society. At this level, we go from monstrous physique I to m.p II. It is a very significant difference. When we go Large (Tiny and smaller monstrous humanoids do not exist, so far as I can tell) our AC goes up by 1 more (natural armor increases are somewhat offset by size and dex penalties), our damage die increase, and we get a bit more Strength. Our movement speeds increase a bit, but we don’t get any new types. Our senses’ visual radii increase as well, but again no new types.
Those are all well and good, but it is the ability list that sets this spell so very far above its predecessor. Those abilities are, “freeze, grab, leap attack, mimicry, pounce, sound mimicry, speak with sharks, and trip.”
Freeze, leap attack, sound mimicry, and speak with sharks are so niche they don’t really deserve more page space.
Grab and trip are pretty obvious; you may find a form or two that will allow you to do some free combat maneuvers. I can see leveraging them, and getting some decent mileage. You’ll probably have size and strength bonuses helping them stick, and with the right equipment and feat choices this could be a potent strategy.
Mimicry (from the Doppelganger form) grants the metamorph proficiency in all weapons and armors, and allows the use of literally every scroll and wand without UMD. That second clause can be an incredible ability in the hands of a savvy adventuring party, as feeding gold and scrolls to the metamorph opens a vast array of utility and trouble-shooting options otherwise restricted to classes they don’t have. While it doesn’t increase our Strength and Natural Armor as much as we’d like, the Doppelganger can use any weapon, so having a decent Falcata or something isn’t a terrible idea. I don’t think this ability was intended to work with monstrous physique, honestly. Other monstrous humanoids have abilities called mimicry as well, but those are just for making animal noises usually. RAW, I believe it works though.
We either go Calikang or Doppelganger for Mimicry. In all likelihood, one stays a Calikang most of the time and occasionally switches to Doppelganger in various out-of-combat situations that require some subtlety.
The reason we like the Calikang is simple: it naturally has 6 (primary) slam attacks. This is poorly reflected in its stat block, as the bestiary version is using two arms for longswords, and then using the remaining four slams for a shield bonus to AC and secondary natural attacks (because it is also using manufactured weapons). We don’t even get the AC bonus, so just going all slams as primary natural attacks behooves us. How ridiculous is this? Let’s crunch some numbers.
A LVL 9 Metamorph that went 18 starting STR, +2 at lvls 4 and 8, +4 STR belt, their mutagen, and morphed into a Calikang will have a STR of 32. The metamorph will likely also have a +1 amulet of the mighty fists. 6 BAB, -2 from Power Attack, -1 from size, +1 from the amulet, +11 from STR, Weapon Focus (slam), and a pale green cracked ioun stone gives us a +17 to attack for 1d6+16. Feral mutagen will add a 2d6+16 bite attack as well. That is an average damage of 109 against an average CR 9 creature’s AC of 23, which is about 95% of its HP. Add on the AC boost, the darkvision, and monstrous reach on all those attacks, and this ability has officially become over-the-top stupid powerful. One might think Weapon Focus (slam) is a bit silly, but it and Improved Unarmed Strike allow us to take Feral Weapon Training, which will later help us use feats like Improved and Greater Trip/Grapple while in monstrous forms. (A 1 level dip in Unarmed Fighter isn’t a bad thought to pick up some feats and proficiencies. Human helps with the feat taxes as well, obviously.)
BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE! A mere two levels later, we get to monstrous physique III. So, we can get to Huge sized creatures (granting +6 STR instead of +4), our senses options now include blindsense and all-around vision (plus our radii get better), and the movement options now include burrow (plus all our speeds/maneuverabilities improve). This would all be well and good, but there are some new abilities as well: blood frenzy, cold vigor, constrict, ferocity, horrific appearance, jet, natural cunning, overwhelming, poison, pounce, rake, trample, and web.
The Charda becomes a more attractive option in situations that you’d like to bull rush or trip, and it has 5 natural attacks, ferocity, and cold vigor to boot.
The Tunnel Brute is a good form for moving around dungeons in unexpected ways, allowing the metamorph to learn the enemies’ locations with tremorsense while moving through cavern walls with impunity. It also is Large, has 4 primary natural attacks, poison, and a climb speed.
The Gegenees is an attractive option, as it is basically an upgraded Calikang. We still have 6 slams, but we’re Huge sized now and all the slams have grab. Imagine having a 15′ reach, 6 attacks + 6 free grapple attempts each round. With size bonuses and your massive STR, it wouldn’t take too much resource investment (a dusty rose ioun stone and improved/greater grapple) to make this thing a hard shut-down for most situations. Again, Feral Mutagen can net us a 3d6 bite attack on top.
The Tikbalang becomes a much better choice now that we can get pounce from out forms, offering ranged attacks, scent, and trample to boot. It can be quite nice for encounters with lots of enemies leveraging distance and stealth.
I think the Gegenees is our form of choice at this level though, as it can pump out just ungodly amounts of damage while still grappling multiple opponents and taking frequent AoOs.
This archetype just isn’t one. It seems like the author wanted to develop a full class, but was only authorized to make an archetype. Everything that makes an alchemist what they are is stripped, and replaced with a scaling SLA and a chance to negate precision damage.
The power curve is the biggest problem. From levels 1-4, it is an Expert with two discoveries (from an extremely limited list), alter self, and mutagen. In other words, it is abjectly terrible. At level 5, it can now get a lot of extra attacks, and some utility in the form of senses and movement speeds. With proper optimization, I think one could be as powerful as a TWF ranger.
At level 9, it suddenly becomes an overwhelming force of destruction. One can be Large and in charge, pumping out a ludicrous number of full BAB attacks, have a versatile array of super-senses and movement types, or simply use any spell-trigger/completion item and every type of armor and weapon proficiently. Every 2 levels from here, the power curve goes even further off the rails, offering a player who has sufficiently studied the Bestiaries’ Monstrous Humanoids virtually any suite of abilities their hearts could desire, including poisons, pounce, fear auras, and free grapple/trip attempts. None of this requires true character customization through resource expenditure, it just comes from the class feature. With Power Attack and some grapple or trip feats/items, it goes from game-breaking to a sick fucking joke. Simply put, this is the worst example of class design I have encountered since 3.5 splats.