By Aeryn Rudel
Blackdirge Publishing product number BDPMA02
7-page PDF, $1.75

Aeryn Rudel kindly offered to send me a couple of PDFs from his new "Master at Arms" series, and as I enjoyed his "None So Vile" series I figured I'd take him up on it. I chose Shatterskull Adept and Crimson Cleaver as the first two to look at from his seven or so entries in the line (at the time the offer was extended - there may well be more by now), based selfishly on what I thought I'd be most likely to use in my own campaign.

Once again, Aeryn comes through with a quality product.

Let's start, as I usually do, with the cover artwork. PDFs - especially those from smaller RPG companies - are often notorious for their slapdash look, usually because the smaller companies simply don't have the art budget that larger companies have. I always try to keep that in mind when reviewing PDFs, but in this case, it isn't even a factor. The cover for Shatterskull Adept features a prominently-displayed dwarven fighter (actually, he's a fighter 5/shatterskull adept 5, as we'll learn when we get to his stats on page 4) wielding a heavy mace (in the full drawing it looks rather like an ornate club or a tetsubo). The drawing is by Jesse Mohn, and while it's black-and-white, it's been "doctored up" a bit on the cover by placing it on a golden background (complete with shading, as if from reflections). The "Master at Arms" logo is also in gold, and there are six horizontal bars flanking the squared-off illustration. "Shatterskull Adept" appears in silver, also with shading, and the whole thing is on a dark blue marbleized background. The effect is quite a striking one, and definitely one of the better PDF covers I've seen.

The interior artwork (also by Jesse Mohn) is a little sparse, as one might expect from a 7-page PDF, but besides the full illustration of the piece that was cropped for the cover (which appears on page 4), there's also a shield bearing the dwarf's clan (Orcsunder, which features a crushed orc skull) on page 5, and several smaller drawings of various weapons, which form a design motif on the credits page and are used to fill in gaps on the pages elsewhere. Really, it's much more artwork than I expected to see in such a small PDF, and the quality is quite high.

Shatterskull Adept begins with a historical perspective detailing how maces and morningstars were used (and improved) in real life. There's a quick "Design Notes" section where Aeryn explains how and why he designed the prestige class like he did (and he also notes other bludgeoning weapons that could reasonably be used with this prestige class), and then the rest of the PDF is the shatterskull adept prestige class itself, complete with full stats for Edrek Orcsunder, our cover model (which also include a short background and physical description).

So, where does a shatterskull adept excel? Not surprisingly, in bashing enemies with bludgeoning weapons! The class features allow for increased fighter advancement (for the purposes of qualifying for feats only - you don't get the bonus feats you would have gotten had you stayed in the fighter class instead of advancing as a shatterskull adept), and you end up being able to deal increasingly more damage with your appropriate weapon. Aeryn does a great job in finding new and unusual (and yet logical) ways to deal damage; rather than just pile on additional dice of damage, different class features allow you to deal double damage to those already vulnerable to bludgeoning weapons, increase damage when using Power Attack and when making successful critical hits, and target specific body parts for a variety of results. The end result is quite satisfying: you end up getting to do extra, cool things with your specialized weapon (which is the whole point of the "Master at Arms" series), but you give up the fighter bonus feats to do so. The end result seems like it's very even in ability to a straight fighter of the same combined levels, but adds a different feel and allows you to do some things that you wouldn't be able to do otherwise. It's really a great concept, and I can't wait to see where else Aeryn takes the series.

John Ball is listed as the proofreader/editor, and for the most part he does a really good job. There weren't a whole lot of things I noticed in Shatterskull Adept that made it past him, besides one obvious, glaring error: all of the pages that have headers read "SKULLSHATTER ADEPT" instead of "SHATTERSKULL ADEPT." I don't know if the prestige class underwent a name change somewhere in its development or if that was just a "brain fart," but whatever the case that's kind of an obvious error. The word "morning star" is also used twice (instead of "morningstar," as it is correctly used elsewhere in the PDF), and there's a rules omission (some of the targeted strikes cause a chance of arcane spell failure, and it isn't addressed whether or not these percentages stack with those caused by wearing armor - my guess is that they do), but beyond that, everything looked fine. And the stat block - except for a few formatting tweaks, I had no corrections to make!

For those players running fighters that wield heavy maces, morningstars, or similar bludgeoning weapons and want to stand out from the crowd a bit, or those DMs interested in adding a little bit of difference to their combat enemies, I can heartily recommend Shatterskull Adept. I give it a solid "4 (Good)," and can't wait to tuck into Crimson Cleaver to see what else Aeryn has come up with.