The last act of module two turned out to be the shortest; surprisingly, the first part (in Eledar) was nearly as long as the race, which just seemed to buzz by in a couple of sessions.
Taizon was a letdown for the players. Part of the problem was that they confused it with Saventh Yhi, because they never read our damn wiki, so they wandered into an abandoned Azlanti outpost with four encounter areas. A bit underwhelming, but still, it ended up going over fairly well over two sessions. The players opted for a direct assault, scaling the walls and cleaning out the charau ka when they met them.
I made some changes to the end-battle locale, the ancient Azlanti temple within the ruins. As written, it’s interesting, but not Indiana Jones enough, so I borrowed a homebrew replacement posted on the Paizo forums. The puzzle it contained was interesting; the players managed to figure it out with only a little prodding, though they were fine with constant screw-ups and trial-and-error, so I’d make the fail results more extreme next time—if someone loses an arm, they’ll think about it for more than ten seconds, right?
Earlier in the module there were some harsh encounters. Several evil outsiders with high CRs (7 and up) were brutal enough to kill the eidolon and give the party something to think about. Plus the aforementioned ape-bears, which for CR 4s hit like a Mack truck; that was fun. After those high benchmarks, a host of CR 2/4 monkies is laughable. This is the biggest problem I have with Paizo writers: mooks are never a threat if your players are halfway decent with tactics and build.
So, I doubled the number of monkies, and they still weren’t that much of a threat. See, they’re all small. And though there were tons of them (I think eight for the final encounter, including the leveled boss), there was just enough to fit into an aqueous orb with room to spare. The ones that weren’t slain instantly or grappled by the eidolon. That’s about how it went for all of those stupid things, even after increasing their number by 35-50% and giving them max hit points… and the players were a level or so below where they should have been.
The Adventure Locales
The ruins have a couple of awesome locales; the main charau ka encounter is in a ruined temple falling into a tar pit, which makes for some interesting tactical choices. The end-target is a large
dungeon ruin, another temple thing, nicely laid out and with a lot of variety.
The only locale that didn’t do much was the tower, which lead down and not up, into a sewer system that didn’t work for my group. It’s there in case the party needs/wants a stealthy access route; in my case, it was more set dressing since it was found after all the monkies had been slaughtered. The players considered the tunnels pointless and moved on.
Nope, that’s pretty much all there is to Taizon. While interesting, I thought it was way too easy, even after I ad-hoc’d the difficulty up (yay GM fiat). My players getting confused over “Taizon as a waypoint” and “Taizon as Saventh Yhi, El Dorado of Golarion” didn’t help, since some of them had worked themselves up only to find… a large empty city.
I didn’t bother showing the map to them; I think that’s wasted opportunity. To be fair, there’s not much room left in the module—there was a lot to squeeze into this one, two bookend cities and a major freaking race. Taizon is left as this sprawling ruin area, something like 1800 ft. x 1400 ft., surrounded by a tall wall… and there’s two buildings, a pit, and a ruin with a tunnel in it. Huge overgrown walled area with nothing in it but easily slain monkies.
Also, as mentioned earlier… there’s no way the player characters won’t win the “race” without serious mistakes on the player side, and a lack of GM prodding to get them back on the rails. I get the need to make the PCs win—they are the heroes of this tale, after all, odds should be weighed in their favor—but there’s no sense of accomplishment since the faction calculations are only known to the GM. For all they knew, they were the last ones there, or another group was just over the hill. (They were something like nine days ahead of the next party slated to arrive.) Hence why I’d run a mini-Kingmaker hex crawler, tracking the various factions’ progress on a big ole map, if I ran it again.
Things I Would Do/Did Different
The challenge level here was subpar. Whatever else I said about the rest of the path, Smuggler’s Shiv through Seven Spears, I take it back; Taizon was a cakewalk in comparison. If I was running this again, I’d replace the charau ka with serpentfolk—there’s three of them, leveled, in the homebrew puzzle, and those were a decent challenge that could still be overcome without serious issues by the PCs. Unless the group was underpowered—pick two: four or less characters, none optimized, a level under the adventure guideline—I wouldn’t use the monkies. Leveling them up is too much trouble, doubling didn’t work, and serpentfolk are more evocative (and fit with my evil plans).
This is also a problem I tried to circumvent in City of Seven Spears—a mob of 7,249 vegepygmies may have a CR high enough to beat down a demon lord, but they can only kill a demon lord statistically, because they will be mown down like wheat .
Depending on how much incentive/time I had, I might also add more stuff in Taizon. Or make it smaller. The map is great, with this varied terrain, an overgrown ruin sinking into the tar pits. And while the locales it has are awesome, there’s a lot of dead space on the map. Just a personal thing.
I would re-use the puzzle, because it was kind of fun, and the players got somewhat engaged with it… even though they kind of shrugged and started mashing gems together immediately. It got good feedback, which was a plus.
Addenda: Other Things I Did Different
Since the players were a bit behind the curve, and as part of my expanding the serpent subplots (with Yarzoth as the BBEG), I threw in some additional combat with serpentfolk raiders and their Young Fiendish T-Rex mount, following a dream sequence vision. To note my group’s power level, the party (down to four around 6th level; fighter, wizard, druid, monk) took on something like a CR 10-11 encounter and beat the T-Rex into a coma. I gave them enough extra XP to bump them to 7th.
Granted, it nearly wiped them out—the druid had one of his many near-death experiences, something that happens more than you’d think to a huge mondo-statted bear. Things were going surprisingly well for them until there was a lucky (unlucky) crit on my part for the Rex; without a few lucky rolls and quick thinking on behalf of the druid, they all would have bought it. Of course, when half the party decided to run off and leave their huge bear druid to die, focusing on a single enemy already locked down via hideous laughter, the near-death part starts to make sense… sometimes it takes two for a TPK.
The Bottom Line
A bit of a letdown ending to an otherwise decent adventure module. Again, I don’t blame Tim Hitchcock; he had enough material for half a campaign and had to squeeze it into one book. The setting has a lot of promise, and for a group closer to the suggestions—four players, med track, not as optimized—it would have been fine. Between their confusion and letdown over Taizon’s emptiness, and my letdown over the lackluster obstacles, Taizon was rather forgettable.
Leaving Eleder begins the first major railroad section of the Path—choo! cho0! Racin’ the Rails! It’s a linear segment involving a number of set-piece encounters, and however many random encounters that you choose to insert. The goal: get to the ruin (har) of Taizon before everyone else. As written, that’s not as hard as it sounds.
While it didn’t look that bad at start, I forgot to consider that unless you’re up for rehashing various scenic descriptions and making a running travelogue, this kind of thing doesn’t convey either time or distance very well. It broke down into “Okay, so you travel for X days and then something happens” despite some attempts otherwise; from behind the screen it looked pretty tedious and dull, but apparently the players liked it.
The scripted encounters have a very nice blend of challenges, a few roleplay encounters, and some butting of heads with the rival factions. They’re also wide open to modification and customization, which I would highly recommend; merging set-pieces with random encounters, random encounters with random encounters, and adding more faction encounters—finding their old campsites, bumping into them, getting assaulted by rival faction hit squads—is a must.
Scripted encounters of note:
- The first is a mini-dungeon, a salt mine full of wights, that the PCs plowed through; I changed its Loc-Nar knockoff to channel negative energy every few rounds to make the end combat more challenging. (Even without a cleric, ghouls weren’t a problem at this level, even with some tweaking.)
- My players went hog-wild on one of the roleplaying encounters, a traveling cockfighting ring that’s weighted against the PCs. My group almost passed it on, but a few last-minute bets initiated by the new guy started a spree of competition; when nobody was looking, they buffed up the chickens, and had one of the most intense fights all campaign.
- There’s a nice opportunity for a hippo ambush sometime later; if you want to put the fear of god into your PCs, there’s ample chance for a bull hippo to swamp their raft. I tried to point out the lizardfolk involvement in the affair—foreshadowing, you see—but I think that was lost on them.
- At one point, they are attacked by a group of CR4 bear-apes, name of “Chemosit.” These hit like a friggin’ Mack truck, so pull punches (or only use one) if your PCs are in a small group or aren’t up to snuff. If they are: throw in a third. I did, everyone survived.
- My group decided that the shrunken monkey heads with near-auto dispel evil, which I was pushing on them at all turns, were worthless, so they sold the one they won. Which made the fight with the possessed demon TOUGH AS ALL HELL. It killed the eidolon, almost killed two of the party tanks too; between is incorporeal (50% miss chance) and DR, it’s more than a challenge for the PCs. (Granted, if they had used the monkey heads, it would have been over in three rounds: Round One, ape attack, Round Two, ape dead, Round Three, dispel demon.)
There’s also one scripted faction ambush, which came just a little too late to be effective—druid wildshapes, maul/maul/maul/crunch. I was throwing them in at a constant basis, or having other encounters involve the desiccated remains of an earlier expedition’s scouts. They learned soon enough not to trust traveling merchants who didn’t have more than fifty feet of hempen rope and no rape whistles.
Things are starting to heat up, partly because the slow track dragged the PCs down a level from where their power levels exponentially (Bear Shaman was okay at 5th, brutal at 6th; Monk of the Sacred Mountain was worthless at 4th, highest damage output of the party at 6th). Three Chemosits gave them a headache—the monk lost 75% of his HP in the first round—and the shadow demon was a long, drawn-out, and bloody fight, ending with the death of the eidolon. The faction rogues all have solid poison that can paralyze, leading to a few coup-de-grace attempts on the Monk; he was probably the only one who realized just how damn close to dying he’d been. Later on, there’s a nice roleplay/combat involving some sirens and another demon which was interesting, if only because a third the party ended up charmed or dominated; it wasn’t as close as the earlier two fights, though.
The Adventure Locales
There’s some cool ideas in here, but to be honest, they’re all “Well I could have thought of that”-level. Kinda vanilla. The salt mine was cool, as was having a lost Chelaxian treasure shipwreck; the rest are mostly deviations on “native village,” “jungle,” “a different part of the jungle,” “jungle river,” etc., but with some new or interesting monster to fight. Hence why I saw spruce it up; some unique encounter locales would have rocked: a trail running under a waterfall or a bridge running over a gorge; a lost ruin campsite of some kind, maybe a rubble tower or a small ziggurat, some way station between Taizon and Saventh-Yhi.
(Also, there’s a heavy emphasis on demons here—makes sense, all the demon-worshiping stuff in the Mwangi, but that doesn’t fit with the other modules’ more varied, less-”stereotypical D&D” monsters.)
Why Did I Say It’s Dull?
Because the title implies “Race,” and as written… there ain’t no freakin’ race, Charlie. At best, the party can cut two days off their travel time from encounters, or add one day from another. Without Nkechi, they add a week to their travel times… but what group’s going to pass on orders to get a guide, which is effectively “go get some guy and XP”? If they go pell-mell for Taizon, and you assume the standard travel times as written on the chart, they’d have to sit in Taizon for something like a week before the next faction’s scouts arrived. There’s no challenge to it, which makes having a druid, or someone with high Survival, or mounts, or whatever, no advantage whatsoever to getting to Taizon first.
There are many ways to spruce up this adventure, and I’d recommend doing all of them. Stop, think, plan, look at the Paizo forums, Google, whatever. The race needs flavor that the module just ain’t got. Those 3-5 sessions spent on the trail were the dullest “race” I’ve ever been a part of; part of the problem was our roleplaying contingent had dropped out, so we’re left with chair-warmers and some “hurry up to get to the combat” folks, which didn’t help. About the time they got to Kalabuto I realized it wasn’t working, and no matter what I did to spruce it up, it just didn’t feel right.
For the love of god, roll those ahead of time. Think of some that are entertaining, too, that combine well with the other encounters you rolled and/or the prefab ones in the module. I kept getting Rival Faction Team, so I’d combine them with things like “Natives” (killed some traveling merchants, tricked the PCs into moving as a group “for protection”). Or I rolled them into animal attacks. I also combined some of the set-pieces; namely, the murder-tree and the Geiers, along with some more (dead) faction members.
Also, have the faction teams show up every now and then, to try to make it feel more like a race. I think the Sargavan government was coming into Kalabuto as the PCs left, and the Pathfinders arrived at the sirens’ hut as the PCs were leaving in the morning.
My group went with the Pirates because they paid the most. The Red Mantis were the clear rival from very early on, though the Pathfinders haven’t seen eye to eye with them either; after knocking Gelik and the Pathfinder faction leader off their mounts, I have the feeling that bridge has been burned.
The Sargavans and Aspis Consortium have been out of the scene; I’ve figured they have more pressing goals, and are more interested in expanding their control/loot, respectively, to pay attention to the other factions’ infighting. Though I have the feeling the Sargavans might turn out to be racist pricks, given the natives’ feelings about “Chelaxian” rule.
(Sometimes I wonder about designers, given Sargava’s polemic bipolarity of “White Man’s Burden” colonials versus “Stab Whitey” natives.)
Things I Would Do Different
If I had to do it over again, I’d go all-out stupid with planning. I’d hash out a map of Sargava with a hex grid in Photoshop, then run a miniaturized variant of Kingmaker for the race: give the hexes terrain features which reduce/increase travel speed, divvy out the set pieces (and add some more!) between the areas, then have the party tell me where and how they’re blazing forth. I’d track the other factions’ progress to emphasize the race angle, maybe even open to the players. And have them take various routes; maybe the Pathfinders would pole up the river, while the Sargavan government would trek across the plains, and the Red Mantis would strike hard and fast through the Screaming Jungle.
I’d also have the major factions take routes with high overlap frequency over the players’ course, so that they’re stumbling into each others’ trails and abandoned campsites, seeing their campfires every few nights, maybe setting each others’ herd animals loose or scaring their native bearers away… all while the clock ticks down to discovering Taizon. It’d give an oppertunity for the other factions to get to Taizon. (Such as the serpentfolk, led by Yarzoth, who I took as the recurring villain.) Or at least have multiple factions make some progress, or make the PCs’ pull all-nighters through the jungle or something else disadvantageous to stay ahead. Granted, it should be weighted towards the PCs, but it shouldn’t be the cakewalk as written.
Kind of like those madcap race movies they had back in the ’60s mixed with… a real race, with everyone running neck-and-neck to Taizon. Yes, this is a helluva lot of work. And given how my current group’s going, it could be a lot of work for naught. But that’s what I’d do, dangnabbit; the module promises a race, and this is how I see a race being delivered. This module was just too railroad-y, too linear a race; I don’t mind the plot being a railroad, but I’m starting to see that “Sandbox-Railroad-Sandbox-Railroad” whiplash people talk about when Serpent’s Skull comes up.
The Bottom Line
All in all, this section has a lot of potential, but needs a lot of GM handwork to have that spark of awesome that other Path modules have. Work which I didn’t put into it, because I wasn’t expecting it (bad. move.) and because I’m sinking most of my time into City of Seven Spears. And Seven Spears demands that you do work GM magic and expand the module, running all over the place solidifying the existing Geo-political sphere, fleshing out encounter sites, beefing up monsters and hazards and diplomatic encounters. Otherwise, if you don’t, it’s the most fucking banal exercise in Vegepygmy genocide I’ve ever read.
I’m having a hard time keeping up with the blog posts I assigned myself; losing my computer for a month didn’t help, so now it’s finding the incentive and momentum to catch up on everything I should have posted. Such as my gaming liveblogs.
Welp, the first half of Racing to Ruin, the second module in the Serpent’s Skull adventure path. Since it’s the second module in the line, it’s main purpose is grinding the characters up to the effective levels of play (the 6-10 sweet spot), and building upon the adventure hook at the end of the first module. (It’s sad, but I’m starting to see Adventure Paths less as the awesome adventures as they appear on the surface, and more as their metagame flowchart cores, the semi-formula they tend to follow—I really need to play more than I run.)
Racing to Ruin starts the characters out in Eleder, after escaping the horrors of Smuggler’s Shiv. Besides giving the players a chance to do some much-needed shopping, it triggers the first major plotline of the Path: the factions seeking the lost city Saventh-Yhi, each of whom sends a representative (last module’s NPCs) to hire the players as trailblazers.
The PCs’ time on the Shiv kind of pigeonholed their NPCs. They didn’t want anything to do with the Pathfinders; I’d made Gelik kind of an odious little shit since he kept failing morale checks and nobody wanted to cheer him up (or talk to him), and besides, I get kind of tired of everyone making Pathfinders into absolute badasses, so I tend to screw with them, like the eccentric old guy in Legacy of Fire who ran an inn (Roderous?) outside Katapesh proper.
Eando Kline, for example, is a badass Pathfinder. Not everyone is Eando Kline. Case in point, the rogue Pathfinders in Entombed with the Pharaohs; yep, one of the groups’ first prime-time appearances, and it’s rotten members abusing the system. (A system which is kinda rife for abuse, too.)
Anyways. Ishirou and the Aspis Consortium didn’t interest them enough—”they’re evil! waugh!”—and as much as they liked Sasha, they didn’t like the Red Mantis. Besides, Sasha isn’t too keen on the Red Mantis, which they knew, and so I had her dragging her feet and only doing it because she had to. Between Jask, another favorite NPC, with the Sargavan Government, and Aerys with the Shackles Pirates, they went pirate because they paid better.
First, postcolonialism in action. Reinforcing the weird geo-politics of Sargava, we end up with a small rebellion of native terrorists. (Yeah, the way to avoid dated “white man’s burden”-style ethnocentric tropes is totally to deal with the issue by having natives who want to stab whitey.) These thugs were easy XP for the party; after fending off some arsonists, they freed a hostage down at the whaling company, where they ended up taking some heat.
Next, their duty was to find an eccentric cleric of Gozreh living as a hermit off on a cliff (Nkechi by name) for the expedition to use as a guide/healer, and perform some tasks for him. Party is leaning very good-ish, since they avoided killing a number of animals/natives that didn’t have to be killed. Of course, this came right after they were berated for killing a bunch of giant crabs.
Nkechi’s dream sequence was pretty hawt. I’d planned to have the PCs’ animal totem stats written up on flash cards, but never got around to it; even with twenty minutes of frantic scribbling and some ad-hoc as to a porcupine’s stats (stupid thing’s now in Bestiary 3) and it went pretty well. I managed to cue my description of the dream-fugue rise and fall of Saventh-Yhi to my background music, which astonished and enthused most of the players. (Ah, the student has become the master.)
From there, they set out on the trail, which I’ll cover next session.
Besides losing and gaining an oracle, who happened to be some of the more interesting PCs, things had already settled by now. I’m finding most of my players are more on the hack-n-slash than roleplay side, despite what I’d advertised/been told; no bonus roleplay XP awards here I guess.
The Slow Track
It’s actually going very, very nice; Smuggler’s Shiv was essentially an XP gold mine, with all its crabs and cave fishers and other vermin to exterminate, so they ended ahead of schedule there and stayed on track for the first section of Racing/Ruin. Not that they’d have had much problem regardless; CR 2′s are only threatening to 1st-level characters and bad builds.
Of course, this is also the low levels of the game; the fighter and druid with bear cub companion were the power characters here. (Druids, power class, ducking fuh.) The party monk was still having trouble hitting and dealing damage, and the summoner was banally weak, though his eidolon was on-par with the party tanks. The new oracle was a pure healbot, which made me feel a little sad inside—play a cleric, I say, so you can cast all sorts of awesome buffs!—though he saved multiple people from being brutally murdered, and thus his life’s mission was complete. The wizard was just starting to get into his own spell-wise.
Hypnotism is still an awful spells—particularly if you’re lazy in using it. Though in the next section, he took scorching ray, which gave the party some much needed artillery, and had been dropping enlarge person on the fighter.
The Adventure Locales
Even though they’re just screwing around in Eleder, I thought the locations were solid. The whaling company was particularly cool; it’s a nice seedy location, and some of its environment became challenges (the machine-trap, flaming blubber). Nkechi’s cliff and quest areas were basic, but made good use of the environment.
The first half is mixed: the whaling station was hardcore, but the rest of the module was standard fare and didn’t push any near-death experiences. The average mooks weren’t worth noting; the Nkechi-based challenges were either out-grappled or dealt with without resorting to bloodshed. (Save the aforementioned mook crabs.)
I thought the kelpie would thrash the druid, since he went in solo and it was several CRs above him. He summoned a squid, which resulted in the kelpie getting pinned as the eidolon swam in, and that was the end of that.
The whaling station, though… the
autobot druid transformed and rolled out as a raptor, heading for the hostage, who happened to be Sasha (punishment for talking the PCs’ out of siding with the Red Mantis). The rest of the party slogged their way through the mooks, while raptor druid took the leveled boss in the teeth. Quick work from the oracle saved his bacon. Meanwhile, the monk investigated the side buildings, looking for snipers he couldn’t find (who perpetually shot him in the ass). It was a lot tougher than the combats on the Shiv, and the druid almost bought it. (Well, save for his backup points and that scroll of raise dead the party’s probably forgotten about.)
I made the dream-serpent into a form of Yarzoth, who is becoming something of a recurring villain in this piece. I was hoping she’d pummel at least one PC back into the waking realm, them being just in animal form and all; while several PCs were cutting it close health-wise, she was soundly thrashed.
Things I Would Do/Did Different
To be honest? Not much. The first half of the module is smooth and simple, and fills its duty of setting the PCs on the trail towards Saventh-Yhi. And giving them a bunch of cake challenges on the way. I did add a few more encounters with the revolting natives, which was about it on that end.
The biggest problem I see here is trying to get the PCs to bite on the whole “expedition to Saventh-Yhi” thing, which may thwart other groups. (To be honest, I didn’t pick up the rest of the path until after my players had consigned themselves to a faction.) I had the NPCs’ pitch it as El Dorado with dollar-signs in their eyes; between that and a general malaise that they were hooked on the Canned Adventure Railroad, they decided to bite and soldier on. Though I’d rather it had been more of a natural “Well shit, let’s go do that” kind of thing.
Sadly, despite all my assurances and needling, not one of them took the plunge and bought a loot donkey for eight damn dollars. I’m going to need to look at their loot inventory and make sure their accumulated wealth/ill-gotten gains aren’t slowing them down.
I haven’t been keeping up as much as I’d like, because I started running the Serpent Skull adventure path last month, and haven’t even mentioned it yet. Theoretically I was thinking of liveblogging it (well, kind of) like what I started to do with my Starblazer game, but that went out the window with all the computer problems of late. So rather than catching up on part of the module, here’s the whole damn thing.
To be honest, Serpent’s Skull is about fourth in my list of want-to-run Adventure Paths, behind Kingmaker, Carrion Crown, and the upcoming Skull & Shackles. But there is a personal interest in the path: it’s almost exactly the same as a campaign a friend of mine has run (rather, tried to run) three or four times. Compare the basics: characters are shipwrecked on a jungle continent ruled by yuan-ti and populated by ancient ruins, namely of a fallen snake-god whose name starts with Y. There’s more than that, some being spoilers.
Granted, the details in Serpent Skull can be a lot different—the PCs are shipwrecked and lost from civilization for only the first module, for one—but the staggering similarity is almost paranoia-inducing. Having played in a campaign where the PCs have nothing, are plagued by diseases, and have to fend off evil reptilians, I felt the need to inflict this on others. Also, I’m taking the slow path, in order to add in more set-pieces and encounters and whatnot (and hopefully put off more of that high-level bloat).
Anyways, Souls for Smuggler’s Shiv. I love low-level D&D adventures, before things like caster supremacy and the Christmas-tree effect and other high-level issues show up and the game starts to break down into excesses of stat-crunching and numbers-balancing. (No, I’m not still jaded on tactical class/level RPGs, why do you ask.) There’s a real sense of player fragility, at least as a GM; one unlucky crit and somebody’s character is toast, with no way to bring them back. Normally that means pulling punches, and the basics—not being an adversarial dick GM for one. But here, the encounters seemed balanced nicely on the PCs’ side, without even factoring that I have a six-man destruction squad.
Which is, compared to my Legacy campaign, strangely caster-heavy and rogue-averse: in rough order, barbarian (going for oracle/rage prophet), druid (going for bear totem ass-beater) with bear-cub familiar, fighter (vanilla greataxe halforc), wizard (focus on mind-affecting, namely hypnotism), monk of the sacred mountain (built to stand in one square and punch things), and summoner with a serpentine eidolon.
I only knew one of my players going in, so the module was more everyone getting used to each other and all that; oddly, they ended up being the most tactical RPG group I’ve ever had, and also emphasized co-ordination and teamwork (aid another, buff spells, and flanking, for starters). For example, there were a couple of times where would have been a miss turned into a hit because somebody had cast guidance beforehand; those little +1/+2 support bonuses made a big difference on several make-or-break occasions.
The actual adventure is pure sandbox: explore an island, kill its hostile flora and fauna, find some hidden loot, delve a few dungeons. There’s a number of complications for the PCs to handle, which is what makes the adventure memorable: it’s a real slog, between caretaking NPCs, fending off disease, and building shelters. The adventure consists of a dozen or so set-pieces, along with fifteen shipwrecks and a bajillion “animal lairs” for the PCs to loot, along with a pair of hidden ruins for the obligatory dungeon crawl.
At first, the players just wanted to make for the lighthouse and get back to civilization, but midway through they heard about the Treasure Pit from one of the NPCs, and between that and the NPC shipwreck quests, ended up exploring a good chunk of the island. (They only missed 2-4 of the named and number locations, along with half the predator dens and a handful of shipwrecks.) The last pair of dungeon set-pieces went over well, though in hindsight I should have built the shipwrecks as mini-dungeons, ala the various dungeons in the Elder Scrolls games. The shipwrecks and lairs, as well as most of the island, is somewhat insubstantial, existing in a void.
It’s as close to Morrowind in d20-form as we’ll probably ever see. It’s a neat idea, but I think I like the hex-crawling of Kingmaker better. That had the gamey element of hex exploration as a method to gauge time and space; with Smuggler’s Shiv, it’s a number of set-pieces seperated by blank parts of the map (“jungle”) and random encounters: I had to work at trying to add a sense of depth and world. Unless you’re up for a lot of jungle description, or tons of random encounters, this kind of thing is better for video games. I still ended up liking it for the freeform nature, diversity of written quests, and ease of inserting new material.
The Non-Player Characters
As for the NPCs, a major factor of this module: the players took to ex-Sargavan Jask immediately, not just because he’s a cleric but because he rolled really well for skill checks the PCs failed, such as explaining what the hell Smuggler’s Shiv is. It took a while, but they realized the NPCs were a good source of intel and quests; they really, really hated Gelik Aberwhinge, and Sasha drove the barbarian up a wall. (Yeah, those were the NPCs I added the most character to; what of it?)
Disease, Shelter, and Food
Having a pair of characters with high Survival and aid another meant that building shelter and finding food was never a problem; a “bad” roll was still higher than the DC by about five. Disease, on the other hand, ravaged the NPCs and the monk, and eventually the barbarian got brainworms. Aside a few potions they found, the PCs ended up relying more on aid another and Heal to have the diseased make their saves. I also ended up being too nice with items, but rather than stacking them in a heap next to the PCs on the beach, I put all but one or two on the shipwreck (requiring a DC 20 Swim check, RAW). (Other bits—anything easily damaged by water, or heavy—mysteriously sank.) It got the PCs started on their investigation, working a lot better than just finding their crap next to them.
The Adventure Locales
There’s a good balance here; naturally, the players liked the treasure pit, and for some reason the crab-house of Pezock. I don’t think they fully understood all the implications of the story-hint-based locales, but that’s about it. Again, most of the shipwrecks and lairs existed purely in the void; I liked being able to draw up my own battle maps, but that’s about it.
At first level, a pair of spider swarms against a group of horribly unprepared adventurers are unfair. Other than that, nothing was too challenging; then again, I have six players. After exploring most of the island, having run into nothing more potent than those spiders, the group tackled one of the module’s end-boss; it had flying, but wasn’t, and was soundly thrashed, even after I’d pre-built it to have more hit points. Actually, there were a few tough battles: a random encounter on a shipwreck involving 2d8 grindylows and the monk failing a Perception check. Still, while the monk dropped, they slaughtered those things. Also, shocker lizards are brutal in pairs (they shocked at least two people down) but worthless on their own.
After that, they took on the entire cannibal village; it was a nice epic-yet-harrowing battle, with a few PCs dropping into the negatives, taking on twenty-odd cannibals, two named-and-numbered, and a couple of beasts (rock lobsters using giant crayfish stats) I’d thrown in. Nothing they couldn’t handle, as each player took an NPC as a bonus, so while things got rough at points the result was never in question: a dozen level 2-4 N/PCs against an army of minimal-level mooks with two leaders.
As for non-combat challenges, those would mostly be the other castaway NPCs, and Pezock, existing castaway NPC. When they realized these quests gave them some great bonuses, they started actively pursuing the shipwrecks and whatnot that each castaway needed to fill their quest.
Things I Would Do Different Next Time
- Add more depth to the bare-bones encounters, namely the shipwrecks and lairs. Not that I didn’t already, but after pillaging eleven wrecks, or fighting yet another giant crab, it began to get tedious. (I don’t get the same grist of world depth in this path as Legacy or Runelords, partly because there’s no set city to flesh out, and only a handful of NPCs.)
- Vary the encounters. Again, I did that, coming up with a different random chart for random encounters and shipwreck denizens. Still, once you’ve fought four giant crabs, you’ve fought them all. That said, the new monsters in the module were pretty slick, and I ended up using most of them; the sea scorpions were fun, but best was the large sea urchin that always made its Reflex saves (even with its -2 base save!). Oh, those hilarious urchins.
That’s about it; the module was very well constructed as-is, and its broad open nature allows the GM to drop in all sorts of new encounters and locales. Feedback was positive but lukewarm about the Shiv itself, which is to be expected—it’s intentionally miserable, with the rain, disease, cannibals, and NPC quests. What warmed people up was the adventure hooks near the end: clearing out the cannibal village, and finding an ancient ruin which spoke of Golarion’s El Dorado: Saventh-Yhi. Also, leaving the Shiv for Eledar helped.
I haven’t done one of these in a while, so it’s time to get back to my basics. With the Core Four and the Druid accomplished, let’s take a look at everyone’s least-favorite class: the Bard.
Bards had a brief appearance in The Strategic Review magazine, but didn’t enter the game full-time until first edition AD&D. There, they had to meet an inane amount of criteria—five levels of fighting-man, then dual-classing to thief, then dual-classing again to druid before ninth level, and then they could take levels in Bard—making Bards something like the first prestige class. All this dual-classing made them inherently powerful, keeping their thief and fighter abilities, along with druidic spells (and the ability to cast those without needing to be neutral).
Second Edition AD&D brought them down to a sub-class of thief, but again, one of the most powerful classes in the game: they could use most (if not all) weapons, had some thieving skills, had spellcasting as if they were a mage three levels below their Bard level, and could wear decent armor (as long as they didn’t want to cast spells). They also acquired Bardic Lore, which was a simplified identify spell, and had Bardic Music, which was mostly low stat buffs. Second Ed bards were capable second-line fighters, had potent spellcasting, and Bardic abilities that were pretty slick. It was a powerful class, though not as brutal as in first edition.
Third Edition started the grand tradition of watering down the Bard into a true jack of all trades (compare the 3.0 Bard with the AD&D classes the game designers advised DMs not to allow). Bards were average in everything, had a slow-progression spell list that was very short but combined aspects of clerics and wizards. 3.5 expanded the Bard’s impressive skill list, and gave it the ability to cast spells in light armor, something nobody else can do. Their Bardic music, which gave sliding-scale stat-buffs and condition removal, now improved as the Bard’s level went up.
Pathfinder keeps the Bard mostly intact from 3.5. Their bardic performances saw sliding-scale increases per level (again), and they became much more versatile in their skills-use… though those mostly applied to Perform skills.
Fourth Edition, on the other hand, put them as an arcane caster in the Leader and Controller roles. Leader is a shoe-in—Bards have always been about making others better via their performance—and Controller takes the class back to its AD&D roots, having a potent and versatile spell list. To keep their jack-of-all-trades nature intact, they can take multiclass feats from anybody; additionally they can cast spells related to their performance abilities.
Originally, Bards needed Dexterity, Intelligence, and Charisma, related to their thieving, casting, and singing respectively. Nowadays, Bardic spellcasting, performance, and most skill abilities are based on their Charisma, though Dex and Int are still for boosting skills.
Role within the party
The Bard is an odd duck to pin down. Their wide range of skills makes them an obvious choice for skill monkey, though one slightly less flexible than a Rogue. Their Bardic Music works as a capable buff across all levels, thanks to its gradual improvements; Pathfinder makes this feature even more useful. In general, the Bard is the character who can do things others can’t, and works in a support role until their services are needed.
Firstly? They can cast spells in light armor! Other arcane classes need to take feats before they can do that. They have a huge selection of skills, plus average hit die and two good saves. Bardic Music can buff, counterspell, and even confuse/fascinate groups of enemies. Their spell list combines solid spells from both the cleric and wizard spell lists. Did I mention casting spells in armor?
Jacks of all trades are masters of none. Their spell progression is slow, they don’t get the flashy high-level spells, and as a spontaneous caster their spell picks are locked in place to a greater or lesser extent: meaning their low-level spells will be pretty useless after a while. The average Bard is not a good combat class because of their low health, AC, and damage output. Also: since the Bard’s whole shtick is related to noise and music, they’re affected even more by silence since it negates any of their singing/countersong abilities.
The Bard is very versatile, but not very competitive: it can do anything another class can do, but cannot surpass any one class without severe optimization, and even then, they’ll be further behind the other classes whose job Bards can do. They have buffs, but not as good or useful as the ones Clerics get, and don’t have the high-damage spells Wizards pick from. They’re terrible damage-dealers compared to Rogues and Fighters, leaving them around on par with Clerics, only the Cleric can trudge around in splint with a tower shield and still cast spells.
There’s still a use for the Bard, especially with its stacking buffs and Performance tricks, but in 3.5 and Pathfinder, it’s widely considered a dead class because of its diminished impact: a Bard can’t hope to leave their mark on a game unless it’s heavy on roleplaying and singing competitions.
Getting back on topic with D&D classes, only ones outside the original four. Druid is still a very old class, dating back to 1st Edition AD&D, but they spent most of their life as a subtype of clerics. I’m particularly fond of them, so I’m jumping ahead of bards and cavaliers and everything else.
So far, I’ve tried to balance the perspective between Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder, being the systems I know the most, but this one will be focusing more on the changes made to druid in the Pathfinder rules set since I’m currently running it.
Gygax had druids—inspired from the pagan, British Isles/Stonehenge druids—back in oD&D, but they didn’t become a playable class until the late ’70s. The idea was that True Neutral clerics made up a sub-set called druids, who worshiped nature as a perfect balance. They were restricted from using metal armor and weaponry, except those with specific symbolic meaning (e.g. the crescent-moon shape of the sickle and scimitar), but could cast more spells and cast faster than Clerics, and had a slightly more aggressive spell-list.
Besides the alignment restrictions, they had other moral/societal rules, but spoke their own cool language and got little animal buddies and in Unearthed Arcana could summon elementals. 2nd AD&D continued with the whole “TN sub-class of nature clerics” thing, but made their casting abilities more or less equal to a cleric’s.
3rd edition gave major tweaks to druids; first off, they were their own class, not a type of cleric. They still had alignment and weapon/armor restrictions, but they got a sizable set of benefits. Druids received an animal companion, and the ability to spontaneously cast summon nature’s ally spells; their shapeshifting abilities were expanded in 3.5, allowing them to change into elementals and a variety of animals and sizes.
Pathfinder tweaked much of how druids operate. Their base details are the same, though slightly nerfed. Wildshape is acquired earlier, but instead of gaining the stats for an animal, it merely gives a set number of bonuses and a limited number of the animal’s special qualities (such as darkvision or grab). Meanwhile, in 4th, they became Controllers, the divine to match the arcane wizard Controllers. They gain more at-will attack powers, and retain many of their traditional abilities (such as Wildshape).
Like most of the more “advanced” classes which exist outside the core four, Druids have a number of important attributes. Wisdom determines their spellcasting. Dexterity and Constitution are vital for keeping the Druid alive, and Strength is highly useful for any melee-centric Druid. Intelligence isn’t that useful, but since it impacts skill points, it’s not a dump-stat; it may seem counter-productive to dump Charisma, since it impacts calming animals, but Wild Empathy is usually powerful enough to take a minor Charisma hit.
Role within the party
Jumping into the Controller category for 4th is an odd choice, but druids have had Controller aspects for ages. Their spell selection is much more control-dominated than a cleric, with spells like entangle, spike growth, and spike stones. (Marginal though they are, they are still very handy spells.) Druids in Pathfinder and 3.5 are incredibly diverse. They can become powerful warriors with their wildshape, or use it to fill the scout or skirmisher roles, which are also augmented by woodland stride and trackless step. They have a larger number of versatile offensive spells than clerics (heat/chill metal, call lightning, flame strike, wood warp, produce flame) while retaining many capable buff spells (barkskin, air walk); they can spot-cast summoning, and have numerous spells that buff their animal companion and summoned creatures. Oh, and they’re also passable healers, better than a bard but far inferior to a cleric.
So, while the druid can very easily become a controller, they are spread all over the party roles. They can be controllers, healers, scouts, and make solid second-line skirmishers or warriors, and even alternate between these roles based on their build.
All of them. Druid was the 3.5 power class for a reason, and they’re still very capable in Pathfinder. They get an animal companion, roughly another frontline fighter, can summon more animals, and can turn into one at 4th level. They have limitless capabilities related to plants, animals, and nature through their abilities and spells. They have a solid spell-list, shorter and weaker than either a cleric or wizard’s, but overlapping both where it needs to. They have two good saves, Fort and Wis, a great selection of skills, and average attack and progression.
Oh, and as divine casters, they can wear armor (shitty non-metal armor it may be) and cast spells. Spells which the druid didn’t have to buy and learn, either.
Alignment restrictions are annoying; weapon and armor restrictions are downright painful. Wearing metal armor means the druid loses her abilities and spellcasting for the day, which is a serious hindrance. This leaves them with a low-grade AC; when in wildshape, the AC is that of the animal, which would be “piss-poor.” Plus, druids are stuck holding either crappy weapons (clubs, staves) or expensive ones (scimitars, sickles). Oh, and their ranged weapon is a sling; yay. Druids also have bad Reflex saves, and their wildshape is severely limited at first, and doesn’t have half the punch it used to due to becoming the new beast shape spells.
Their spell list is very capable, but is focused largely towards buffing animals, not people, and doing an amazing amount of inane shit with plants (talking to them, driving them away, etc.). It lacks the consistent versatility of other casters: neither as much healing as a cleric’s or as much damage as a wizard’s.
Druids were the most powerful class in 3.5, being able to do everything at once; instead of having to buff oneself to perform this like a cleric or wizard did, the druid just had to wildshape. Pathfinder has nerfed their wildshape power-ability. And yet, they’re still one of the more powerful classes. Wildshape and casting can put the druid above the fighter in utilitarian value, and gives them more of an offensive edge than a rogue, though they have nothing to compare to a good sneak attack. Most of all, for any wilderness-based game, their list of abilities allows them to overcome a number of hindrances—poison, difficult terrain—that can bog down other characters.
A druid isn’t able to heal or buff as well as a cleric, or damage and de-buff as well as a wizard. However, their spell list does encompass the best aspects of priests and mages, capable of healing (even though it isn’t that good at it), capable of buffing (the same bull’s strength, cat’s grace, etc. as everyone else), has versatile offensive spells, and can control the battlefield. Just because druids don’t excel at any of these the way other casters can doesn’t negate the fact that they can do any of them all at once.
So, druids got a necessary nerf that still leaves them with the capabilities to outshine the rogue and fighter in combat, while their spellcasting remains a few steps behind the other casters. Either one would make it a great class; having all of these benefits and advantages makes it downright powerful.
Last of the four core classes: the thief, recently retitled the rogue in order to give the class a little more variety in its roles. We’ll get to the other classes, but for the most part, the rounded party of Fighter, Priest, Magic-User, Thief has been the staple of D&D adventuring parties since the 1970s.
The last of the four core classes was introduced in the 1975 Greyhawk supplement. It’s pretty obvious Gygax based the character off of Bilbo from The Hobbit, though there’s some Grey Mouser and Cugel the Clever there: someone capable of stealing, but also capable of fighting and fast-talking their way in and out of situations. Interesting enough, in AD&D, thieves were the only class non-humans could reach unlimited levels in. There were also a number of weird restrictions on alignments between the early editions, so you could have a NG or LN noble rogue, but no LG or CG Robin Hood type. Thieves were most noted for their Backstab ability; if they attacked an enemy from the side or rear, they could do bonus damage, applying a damage multiplier to their final damage roll.
Thieves originally got thief skills, which were the closest thing AD&D had to a skills system. This was a percentile-roll sub-system, where the thief would have a certain percent (say, 35%) in Pick Pockets, Find & Remove Traps, Open Locks, Hide in Shadows, and Move Silently, and would have to roll their success. The skills started at a flat rate of 10-20%, and got a number of points to boost these per level.
Thieves were renamed to rogues for 3rd edition; it’s a good move. Thief has such a limited role (and negative connotation!) associated with it, while all sorts of good rogues populate fiction, from Han Solo to the Grey Mouser. Part of this new role was a broadening of what they could do; thief skills were rolled into the new skill system, and rogues got access to them… along with almost everything else. Backstab was replaced with sneak attack, an ability that dealt bonus d6es in damage when the rogue struck a target denied its Dex bonus, flat-footed, or flanked. Lastly, the class got rogue talents, special abilities or feats that allowed the rogue a number of benefits, such as “dirty” fighting tactics or the ability to move faster while stealthed.
Pathfinder didn’t do much with rogues; it upped them from their traditional d6 hit die to the d8, so the class fell in line with every other class that had an average attack progression. It also expanded the number of rogue talents. 4th put them as Strikers, emphasizing their traditional mobility and single-target precision damage. Sneak attack was altered so that it only applied once per round, compared to 3.5 and Pathfinder.
Dexterity is the most important attribute for all thieves, since it handles all of their finesse-based stealth, perception, and trap/locksmithing skills. It also improves their initiative, Reflex saves, and ranged attacks, three things rogues use often. Intelligence gives the rogue more skill points, and Constitution is never a bad stat to have.
Role within the party
Rogues fill several roles; primarily, they are the skirmisher, the class cannon in combat who can dish out the most damage in one hit (through their sneak attacks). Rogue precision damage can make or break a combat, so they need to rely on their other assets to get into striking position: stealth, tactical movement (Tumble/Acrobatics), flanking. Secondly, and more important for AD&D games, rogues are the people who set and disarm traps, find and open locked doors, and make sure the treasure chest isn’t a potential explosive device. They also have the option to specialize in anything they want skills-wise.
Also worth noting: because of their stealth skills, rogues make excellent scouts, finding out what’s lurking ahead of the party before the party stumbles into it.
The rogue is awash in skill points and skills; rogues rely on a variety of skills, and get a wider array of them than anyone else. Rogues are the only class who can pick pockets and open locks; they can also specialize in a number of diplomatic skills, stealth skills, all the perception skills, and use magic device. UMD is not a skill to under-emphasize, since it allows the rogue to use wands and scrolls, which is a damn fine ability to have, particularly if the group is low on casters. Their Trap Sense, Uncanny Dodge, and Evasion abilities allow them to ignore hindrances that could cripple an unprepared fighter.
Rogues get average hit dice and attack progressions, and can use a number of basic/light weapons and armor, giving them better survivability than wizards in melee… though, to use their abilities to the fullest, lighter armor is best. Rogues aren’t as good as fighters or clerics due to their lower AC, but they have great mobility, and a good weapon selection.
The rogue’s best asset is their backstab/sneak attack: the extra damage is where it’s at. Rogues are generally geared to damage output, and hitting is of prime importance; a rogue’s other abilities—stealth, tumbling, flanking—all set them up to sneak attack. A good sneak hit can ruin just about anything in the game, provided it is subject to criticals.
Rogues are going to be in combat a lot—flanking and whatnot to set up sneak attacks—and will probably have the lowest AC of all the party melee combatants. This means their health won’t go as far, even in Pathfinder with a d8. Most important, rogues suffer from the flaws of both Wizards and Fighters—they have terrible Will and Fort saves, making them perfect bait for any number of spells and spell-likes. Unlike fighters, they don’t get a bonus against fear spells, and they’re just as easy to dominate. Comparatively, rogues aren’t that weak, but they have some major weak spots.
Rogues start the game as a fairly weak class—less health and AC than the fighter or cleric, as well as less damage potential—but end up in a very strong position, with the best damage output per class, as many varied skills as they want, and the ability to use scrolls and magic items. Rogues are a lot like wizards: both of them follow a strange D&D power pattern that makes them nearly worthless at first level, and can end up outperforming other classes. They also ignore anything requiring a Ref save. That said, rogues still have several major flaws. They never have the health or AC that they need, and are easy targets for Will-based (dominate, charm/hold) or Fort-based (disintegrate, slay living) spells. Rogues are powerful classes, but are even more of a glass cannon than wizards; wizards can simply cast fly or stoneskin, while rogues have to UMD scrolls at best, and more often than not take it in the teeth.
The last of the first three classes presented in the oD&D Little Brown Books is the magic-user. The D&D arcane caster has always been a hodge-podge of literary inspiration, primarily a heavy modification of the spellcasters presented in Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth series: casters who can “memorize” a number of magical formulas in their heads which are “lost” upon casting.
The class has went through three distinct names: magic-user, mage, and wizard. No other class has had its terminology changed up so much, although Fighting-Men became Fighters, and Thieves became Rogues. On the other hand, whatever their name, wizards have stayed very much the same. They are the weakest class, in both physical health and martial prowess. They can’t wear armor, can’t use most weapons, and are otherwise the weakest link in the party (in that they die the easiest).
At the same time, they’re the strongest link in the party, and are on a steady track to become the most powerful. They have always made up by being the artillery: mages are the guys who drop the flashy damage spells, who control the battlefield with de-buffs and movement restrictions, and who get the most powerful abilities at high level in the form of 8th and 9th level spells. Nobody else got spells that powerful.
Specialist wizards have existed since AD&D, with the quintessential gnome illusionist. Illusionists gained minor bonuses at the cost of having a different spell list and slightly fewer hit dice. 2nd Edition codified this; instead of having a separate spell list for each specialist school, each school had prohibited “opposing schools” that the specialist wizard couldn’t access.
Wizards had also gotten some secondary rules benefits to represent their higher intelligence, which is reflected in how many skills 3.x gives the class. The other major change was metamagic feats: the ability to “modify” a spell by casting it at a higher level spell slot. These can increase the spell’s effects, or allow the caster to cast the spell without requiring verbal commands or movement components. Specialists saw some loosening of their rules, in that a specialist chooses their restricted schools.
Pathfinder did much to change how the wizard operated; their hit die increased, and specialists now got specialty powers and spells related to their school ala Cleric domains. 0-level “cantrip” spells could be cast at-will, and specialists got a large number of per-day abilities, allowing the wizard to cast minor tricks through several encounters. The spell list also saw some nerfs, making the class less powerful in the low-mid range of the game. 4th Ed put the Wizard in the Arcane Controller role: much as with all other wizards, the 4e version focuses on doing multi-die damage to multiple targets, de-buffing enemies, and altering the terrain to handle movement control.
Intelligence has always been the arcane caster’s attribute of choice. Constitution (for health) and Dexterity (for AC) have always been good secondary choices for Wizards, though they don’t really require any secondary attributes.
Role within the party
The mage is the glass cannon artillery of the party: the class nobody wants to see killed because of its potent spellcasting abilities. Its spellcasting falls into three main categories. First, damage; wizards get better damage-dealing spells than anyone else, particularly ones that can affect multiple targets (fireball, cloudkill, cone of cold). They also work great at de-buffing powerful enemies (ray of enfeeblement, glitterdust for invisible things) or just simply locking them out (sleep, hold person, charm monster). Lastly, they handle all sorts of battlefield control to tie up the enemy (web, grease, black tentacles).
The wizard’s spell-casting is more diverse than that; they’re also great at summoning, can buff allies, and have all sorts of other utility spells from feather fall to telepathic bond. They can divine the future, transform targets into dragons or newts, wish for anything they can imagine, and stop time itself. The wizard has always started the game as the person cowering behind the armored meat-shields, and ended with unlimited power potential at their fingertips.
Wizards have great skills and skill points, a nice selection of metamagic feats, and a great spell selection. They also have a familiar, which can be used as a lookout or spy, though having a familiar die is a serious issue. Perhaps their best advantage is their spells, particularly those which can keep them alive long enough to control the battle: mage armor, mirror image, stoneskin, and fly should be mandatory for all arcane spellcasters. The ability to modify them with metamagic makes them very potent, as does the freedom to prepare from a wide array of known spells.
Oh, and they can also make their own magic items. Let that sink in for a minute.
Their spells aside, wizards are a horribly weak class. They have the lowest health and bad Fort and Ref saves. Without sinking feats into armored arcana, the possibility of spell-casting failure means they can’t wear armor. Between the low health and low AC, wizards are incredibly fragile things; a few solid hits or a crit can end the wizard before they’ve even begun to cast. Their low attack bonus should be a deterrent to getting up close and personal in combat combat… at least, until the wizard can prepare transformation and their horde of personal defense spells.
Probably the biggest disadvantage is the wizards’ low number of spells per day. While their casting is more versatile and customizable, sorcerers get the same spells, and more of them, at a slightly slower progression. Picking and choosing spells and scrolls carefully is a must, otherwise the wizard is left with nothing to do be rely on wands or crossbows.
The wizard is the least useful class in pure martial combat, and it has the lowest survivability in low-level and even into mid-level adventures. But its spell-casting makes it the obvious superior class. Many of its spells simply avoid or finish combat: sleep or color spray for groups at low-level; dominate or hold/charm for solo enemies at mid-levels. At the end of the game, they get wish and time stop, and no other class has anything which comes even close to these abilities. The wizard gets better offensive spells than the cleric or druid, enabling them potentially better damage output than the fighter. And there’s always something for a wizard to do.
The wizard also one-ups to sorcerer from its ability to customize each day’s prepared spells to fit specific adventures—fire spells against trolls, water breathing for aquatic adventures, etc. A sorcerer has to make do with what they’ve got at all times, but if the wizard has eight hours of forewarning, they can prepare the right spells the night before heading into combat. While the sorcerer gets more spells per day, unless they choose their list very carefully, the wizard is the better option every time with its unending spell list.
Next up, clerics. This is a class which spent decades as the legendary “everybody needs it, nobody wants to play it” class, then spent a decade as one of the most potentially powerful classes in the D&D game. Another one of the original three D&D base classes, clerics are the standard divine caster, acting as the hands of their deity to channel their power on the material plane.
Older edition clerics couldn’t use edged weapons to represent the Catholic church’s decree to use weapons that “did not shed blood;” ironic, as a blunt weapon can crack skulls just as easily. At higher levels, clerics used to be able to use their turn undead features against demons and other evil outsiders, while evil clerics could turn paladins before being able to rebuke undead. 2nd Edition broke cleric spells into “spheres,” which combined with the cleric’s dogma, determined what they could cast. It’s interesting to note that high-level AD&D clerics got a cathedral full of followers that they had to take care of; rangers got a motley crew of animal followers, fighters got troops, and clerics got a church.
Worth noting: spells were limited depending on what the cleric worshiped, with a demi-god allowing up to 4th level, and a god up to 7th. And there was a chance of divine spell failure, based on the cleric’s Wisdom; how wise they were determined their degree of connection to the divine. Also worth noting: AD&D clerics could only be of an alignment that wasn’t True Neutral; TN “clerics” were a sub-class called druids, and were clerics who followed the balance of nature. This was changed up in later editions, though even today you should be within one step alignment-wise to follow a deity.
Clerics spent a lot of their life as the class every party needed but nobody wanted to play: the heal-bot. 3rd Edition came up with the idea to “spontaneously” cast heal-spells, freeing up the cleric to prepare their other spells, which made the class much more playable. Domains replaced the spheres process, giving the cleric a list of options to choose from, which boiled down into choosing one of two domain spells, and receiving two domain powers. With its solid BAB, good saves, d8 hit die, and heavy armor proficiency, clerics became very effective beatsticks. Particularly with their own buff spells and assortment of domain powers. Oh, they could also cast spells up to 9th level.
Pathfinder upped the ante on domain powers, and also added in the ability to channel energy, healing (or harming) all living or unliving targets for xd6 per level. This healing boost wasn’t offset by any major nerfs; clerics lost their heavy armor proficiency, and that’s about it. 4th Edition put clerics in the Leader role, which does exactly what clerics have always done: buffed and healed allies, focusing first on healing and protection backed up with some melee capabilities.
Wisdom is the cleric’s main attribute, which influences spellcasting. Charisma has traditionally been a secondary attribute, which things like turn undead are based upon. Strength and Constitution are always useful for a more combat-centric cleric.
Role within the party
Clerics don’t exactly fit with most peoples’ idea of the medieval priest, but it’s pretty clear that Gygax based these “defenders of the faith” on divine crusader-knight orders, such as the Knights Hospitalers or Knights Templar. Going with that mindset makes clerics make sense: divine warriors who protect their deity’s flock, guiding their wards through the deadly wilds to reach the holy land.
Clerics serve with both spiritual aid and martial combat, but not pure battlefield crusaders (we call those paladins, who are more a representation of goodly Arthurian knights). Clerics are wardens of the faithful, the defenders of their chosen faith, which reflects in their abilities: they have enough martial training to act in battle if necessary, an assortment of abilities to fight back the evil tides of darkness, and a wide array of protection- and healing-based spells.
First and foremost, they are spellcasters. While their spell list isn’t as flashy as their arcane counterparts, clerics have a wide range of versatile spells. Clerics have a wide range of stackable buff spells, starting with bless and protection from [alignment] at first level. They can summon creatures, invaluable for giving the party another fighter and setting up flanking. They can turn and destroy undead, one of the more common foes, with many spells and abilities. What few damage-dealing spells clerics get are utilitarian (inflict x wounds), albeit many are best used against evil foes (holy smite, undeath to death). And most importantly, they can heal.
Second, even as a spellcaster, clerics are great second-line fighters. For most editions they can wear heavy armor, though they are restricted in what weapons they can use. They have solid attack progressions and health, which combined with their armor and weapon choices, makes them a serious combat contender. Clerics are the best spellcasters for someone who wants to wade into combat, particularly in their wide array of buff spells: magic weapon, magic vestment, divine favor, shield of faith and the like can give the cleric beefy “magic” item bonuses before the party’s fighter has his first +1 longsword.
Clerics have few disadvantages, and many are the same as the fighter. While fighters could justify the lack of skill points, clerics have far too many skills to put ranks into—know (religion/planes), heal, diplomacy, and perform (oratory) if the GM is anal about skill checks when the cleric performs holy rites like I am. Clerics are only proficient in simple weapons and their deity’s favored weapon, limiting their combat options, and unlike fighters they don’t get any abilities to off-set heavier armor’s movement penalties. Lastly, they have terrible Reflex saving throws, which doesn’t always make up for the two good saves they have.
Clerics are somewhat divergent, a class that can easily become either the most or least powerful in the party. They have the option to out-fighter the fighter by focusing on their buff spells and tactical summoning, but can also stay as pure healbots who exist to drop healing spells on wounded party members. Their high-level spell list has some phenomenal choices that nobody else gets (blade barrier, planar ally, holy word, righteous might). Clerics also have higher survivability rates than wizards due to their ability to wear armor while casting. Without the right spells, equipment, or attributes, a cleric can’t compete with either the fighter or the wizard, but clerics start in a good spot to dominate.
Let’s start off with the easiest and most basic class: the fighter. The general stereotype about 3.x is that casters win the game and fighters are worthless; while it’s true they’re one of the weakest classes in the game, they have some strong advantages, and smart optimization/equipment choices/caster support makes fighters a viable combat machine.
The “Fighting Man” is one of the three oldest classes, dating back to the original Little Brown Books (oD&D). Fighters have generally had the best attack progression, high health, and the ability to use the best equipment. AD&D fighters were the only classes who could gain weapon specialization, offering bonuses to hit and to damage. 2e AD&D continued weapon spec. by adding in weapon group proficiencies, and added in the core four fighting styles: single weapon, dual weapons, sword-and-board, and two-handed-weapon. 2nd Edition also contained a lengthy list of example fighters:
Hercules, Perseus, Hiawatha, Beowulf, Siegfried (Sigurd), Cúchulainn, Little John, Tristan, and Sindbad… El Cid, Hannibal, Alexander the Great, Charlemagne, Spartacus, Richard the Lionhearted, and Belisarius.
It’s also worth noting that at higher levels, fighters got castles filled with troops and followers. AD&D fighters were awesome like that.
Fighters got a leg up in the 3.o rules. The addition of Feats meant that fighters could now be easily customized, and multiple fighters in a party could do very different things. The fighter retained all the basic abilities, such as the d10 hit die and fast BAB, but gained the worst skills per level of all classes. (Painfully so.) The idea to customize each fighter with dozens of feats and fighting styles/maneuvers meant that fighters had a lot more to do than roll to hit, roll damage. Fighters saw no major changes in the 3.5 revisions.
Pathfinder’s changes were notable: it increased feat acquisition, furthering customization, added “weapon group specialization” back into the game, gave a bonus to Will saves against fear, and a reduction in armor penalties. However, despite their attempts to make it viable from levels 1 to 20, its capstone ability is lacking. 4th Edition codified the fighter as a martial Defender, using its solid defensive abilities to protect other characters. Their focus is on damage output and mobility control, while retaining their traditional high health and attack rate.
Strength to hit and do bonus damage, Dexterity for ranged combat and a better AC, and Constitution for health. In 3.x and Pathfinder, it can be a good idea to bump Intelligence for extra skill points, and Wisdom to make up for that pitiful Will save.
Role within the party
The most obvious one: the frontline combatant, the warrior, the guy standing in front of the artillery (magic-user) and his healing support (cleric). Fighters have been defined as anything from bodyguards to bandits to soldiers, and everything in between. In actuality, they’re close to defensive lineman in football: they get into the midst of the scuffle, and using their strength and prowess, keep the enemy line from attacking the more vulnerable members farther back.
Fighters are an interesting role to play. Their main build in 3.x looks like a slugger from their damage output potential, but that’s only half of the role. Given their higher AC and health, fighters are generally good targets for the GM to swing at, since they’re less fragile than the other party members. Thus the fighter ties down the enemy and makes himself a target, allowing the other party members to set up for spellcasting or sneak attacks. The fighter has to survive a lot of attacks, but also has potent offensive capabilities, getting more attacks (and thus, more hits, and more damage) than anyone else.
Fighters have huge advantages, particularly at lower levels. They have the most hit points per class (save barbarians in newer editions) because of their d10 hit die. They can use all the armor, all the weapons, and can specialize quite easily in whatever equipment they choose. They have the best attack progression, get the most attacks per round, and with their huge arsenal of feats, are highly customizable combat powerhouses.
However, their disadvantages are numerous. They are legendary for having terrible Will saves, and are easily dominated or confused by enemies with spells or spell-likes. Until Pathfinder added in Bravery, fighters were also terrible cowards who’d fail saves against fear. They also have the amount of skill points imaginable; the fighter has roughly two skills he’ll shine at, probably Climb and Swim. And having all that heavy armor makes them sluggish on the battlefield: plate is great, but reduced speed and encumbrance aren’t. Pathfinder’s Armor Training is a major help in this area.
As they progress in levels, it becomes harder for a fighter to stay competitive; even their bundle of feats and abilities pales compared to a well-built spellcaster. In fact, fighters at all levels are reliant on the party casters: buffs and terrain-negating spells make combat much easier. The fighter is still a damage powerhouse due to its great BAB and number of attacks, but is outshone on the damage-dealing front by a rogue pulling off multiple sneak attacks. The sheer level of customization available from all those feats is impressive, but the player has to be strict in their choices to outshine the advantages of a paladin, ranger, or barbarian via the bonus feats.
Fighters have always been a second-stringer in high-level D&D, moreso in 3.x. Rogues do better damage, Clerics and Wizards dominate the battlefield through their spells. That said, the fighter can still be a decent class, pending proper building and support from the party’s casters. The fact that it’s so reliant on optimization and caster support point out that the class needs some modifications, but fighters are still very useful, particularly in the “sweet spot” of low-mid level combat.