Some Thoughts On Pathfinder

My history with d20 has been an odd one. I started out decrying d20, grudgingly played in high school, and first got into “real” 3.5 games in college. My first of many college games was an Eberron 3.5 game I still miss, but some bad experiences (ones I attempted to critique back when I was using Blogger) drove d20 to the back-burner for quite a while. Sure, I ran a Tomb of Horrors one-off for Halloween that never finished, and some other one-nighters which met mixed reviews, and played in a couple of 3.5 games that died miserably in their teething stages. But it was the death of 3.5 D&D and the explosive birth of Pathfinder that, for whatever reason, got me to really into with the d20 system. Truth be told, I still prefer Exalted, and my gut reaction always leans towards sci-fi over fantasy, but when I get the itch for a hardcore tactical fantasy game, Pathfinder is there to scratch it.

It’s an awkward feeling when I know d20, the most popular gaming system on the planet for most of my gaming life, worse than I did obscure or out-of-print systems like Alternity, TORG, and Cyberpunk 2020. It was even more awkward when I did some work at a small e-publisher, and was put in charge of fact-checking the d20 mechanics since I had the most knowledge of the system. (Even worse when I, with my scant experience actually playing d20, had to explain to the line developers that there was no “throwing attack” skill.) I guess it would be more accurate to say that I didn’t use d20, considering how I delved in to explore and understand its mechanics.

Anyways, having run Pathfinder almost exclusively for a year, it’s good to take all that operational knowledge and mechanical understanding and get some first-hand, hands-on experience with the system… battlefield experience, if you will.

Flavor Rocks!

3.5 was bland as toast. Sure, we had the names of the Greyhawkian deities, and a few powerful people like Bigby and Vecna, and Saltmarsh was in the DMG II. But, for the most part, the system was kept miles and miles apart from the world’s flavor. This saddened me; yes, yes, we have the FRealms and Eberron, but the core world of Greyhawk had almost no appearances in the game line. You could tell the core game took place in Greyhawk, but there was no connection there; no sourcebooks or anything to take Rules X and apply them into Greyhawk. It existed in Greyhawk enough to have an aftertaste, but not enough to make the world feel like anything other than a generic place to stick rules mechanics.

Pathfinder has changed all of that; while the core books are still world-agnostic, there’s still plenty of flavor and fluff that comes through. The iconics show up frequently in the core book, and a lot of the Inner Sea Golarion flavor comes across in the chapter breaks, each telling a little story out of the adventure path lineage. Besides that, the art and maps give a dark, grim flavor… not grim as in Warhammer, but notably darker than the dungeonpunk of 3.5. This is a world that definitely needs heroes—this cannot be understated—and each adventure path and setting book just rams this point home. On top of that, the deities are incredibly evocative, and I’m enthralled by how they were made both accessible and unique. (That said, I’m looking to see how it applies to Tian Xia when that campaign setting hits.)

Monks Really, Really Suck

All my D&D life, I’ve been told how broken monks are. I’ve even had DMs bar the class from their games (a bit ironic, since one of those DMs play a vow of poverty monk in a game I was in). I guess gaining the equivalent of scale mail for free at first level is broken, if your Wis and Dex are high enough, but at mid-levels they continue to underwhelm. (Though, their higher level abilities begin to make up for it. Sort of.)

Two monks joined my Legacy of Fire campaign in mid-stride, while Muji the Cleric crossed into monk to gain levels in sacred fist. One of the new monks was given a +1 dancing meteor hammer because it amused me, and is referred to as the effective monk by the other players. Between his dancing hammer and flurry of blows, he gets around eight attacks per round. Even with his elemental fist ability, gauntlets of strength, and amulet of mighty fists, his damage output is about a third that of the rogue (improved feint/sneak attack) and the party tank (several hundred thousand gold in magic item enhancements).

Two big stumbling blocks exist. First, their AC may seem really, really high at first level, but not even a bundle of magic items can compare to +2 mithral field plate. The monks are just now getting ACs in the low 20s, while the other players have been kicking around in the mid-to-high 20s for an entire module. Second, anything with DR, especially DR 10/Cold Iron or DR 10/Adamantine, is not worth bothering with. Flurry of blows is great and all, but when fighting a good DR 10/—, the average raw damage output is under 10 points… maybe 15, if the creature in question doesn’t have enough resistances to negate elemental fist.

Animal Companions Rock

I’ve been in love with animal companions ever since I chose druid in Neverwinter Nights, just to get a third party member. Animals are incredibly powerful at low levels: through judicious use of feats and classes, the party ranger/druid got his leopard to huge size, with a decent attack and pounce. As a sad but true fact, the player began holding his animal companion in reserve, simply so combat wouldn’t devolve into one-hit kills from the leopard.

Even without powergaming the animal companion chart, a good animal companion effectively adds another tank to the party until around level 6-8. They’re fairly easy to get a hold of, can be replaced by expending time and roleplaying, get a number of good buff spells from a druid, and they usually have better BAB and health than their handler. The big problem is that they become more fragile than the PCs after level 8 or so, or at least, as fragile as their PC companions. Similarly…

Summons Rock

I’d promoted this for a long time, up until a player chose a summoner for a one-of Tomb of Horrors game I ran. After his Power Word: Cat (celestial dire lion) saved the party on numerous occasions, my players began to appreciate summon spells, and incorporated them with their new characters.

Matt, playing the group’s current cleric Muji, is the best example: he spent the largest part of his first ten levels summoning 1d4+1 badgers, later maximized to 5 badgers per cast through an achievement feat I gave him. They can burrow, rage, and are great for flanking (and distracting opponents). It’s also sad when these low-level summon monster I badgers were useful up through around EL 6. Like animal companions, they lose their power quickly in comparison to new adversaries, but that’s mostly because Matt is too lazy to summon anything but badgers, when he could have 1d3 deinonychus or a couple of hound archons pop out of thin air.

Clericzilla/Druidzilla relatively intact

Clerics are still incredibly powerful, what with their domain powers and new channel ability, but my favorite class (druid) has had some notable power shifts. Wildshape is no longer the powerhouse it was, giving druids less aggro power on their own. That said, most of their spells have improved. Call lightning can now be used indoors, as with most of their spells, giving them even more power and utility in their spellcasting: they have a solid selection of healing and damage spells, and while they’re masters of neither, druids are still a great utilitarian class. You’ll probably have better luck powergaming clerics, what with their channel giving even fewer reasons to prepare heal spells, but both have plenty of options for killer builds.

Backwards Compatibility Indeed

On the so-called backwards compatibility with 3.5. Most of the feats, spells, and prestige classes of 3.5 are fully compatible. Prestige classes will lose some of their saving throw boost in the new rules, but are otherwise still valid as written. Standard +2/-2 races require a third +2 modifier, to give a +2 to a mental ability and a +2 to a physical one. Largely, everything is automatically compatible, and only a few things require any serious converting. The two hangups are classes and monsters.

I’ll get back to working on 3.5 -> Pathfinder conversion notes one of these days (probably when I’m back home with my library), but for the most part, the only core classes that can be used as-is would probably be those in Complete Adventurer; they’re decently powerful and have abilities every level, the hallmarks of Pathfinder classes. For the rest, either come up with interesting abilities to make up for their new underpowered status, or load them down with bonus feats. Many of them are far from working with Pathfinder’s new core/base classes, especially the worthless Hexblade (I really want to like those), the one Samurai who got next to no class features, and most of the divine casters from outside the core book.

Monsters are a different story; as written, most 3.5 monsters are underpowered enough to justify lowering their RAW CRs a couple of levels (2-3). Some 3.5 monsters (sphinxes, from experience) will become much more powerful when converted to Pathfinder, while others (dire creatures, elder elementals) lose some of their total hp. For most, it’d simply be best to get the new Bestiary, though I’ve noticed a few (Juggernaut!) which aren’t included yet… Bestiary 2? On the flipside, Paizo has continued to include templates from Green Ronin’s Advanced Bestiary and monsters from Necromancer’s Tomes of Horror almost as verbatim in their adventure paths, so with a Paizo Bestiary, you can convert those which need converting.

The big things are minor changes: most creature types (save for elementals) now take critical hits; undead dropped to a d8 HD; outsiders upgraded to a d10 HD. Pay attention to the new skills/feats rules, since mid/high-level creatures usually gain feats, and lose from a few skill points to a full skill. If it doesn’t fall into one of those categories, the changes will mostly involve lowering/raising hp or BAB to modify the power level, which usually doesn’t shift the CR for some reason. The big complaint I have with the bestiary is that LA/advancement rules are in the back to save space, and creatures no longer increase in size with advancements.

That all said, I’m thinking about using 3.5 core classes as levels for special NPCs. They’re more powerful than NPC classes, but less powerful than the Pathfinder equivalents; essentially they’d give a good “slightly less powerful” vibe to NPCs who’d use things for which there are no good NPC classes, druids and rogues for example. Though, to be honest, given how powerful the PCs in Pathfinder are, I don’t think they need any more boosts to their power.

CMB/CMD Is Pretty Cool.

Before CMB/CMD, I never saw anyone using any of the special attacks. Chalk it up to player laziness, an urge to speed the game along, bad memories of the horrid 3.0 grapple rules, or just simply that nobody knew how to use them. (Or, more likely, the fact that I was one of the most experienced players in my 3.5 games, and even I was clueless about some aspects of the game… like special attacks.) With CMB/CMD, players regularly ask how to use them, and the response is always “roll a d20 and add your CMB.” The last session was particularly full of them, with one player attempting to bull rush a juggernaut (into another player), the juggernaut attempting to bull rush the players, and others attempting to charge or grapple lizardfolk.

I have the feeling that this is partly due to the new feel of CMB/CMD, but also because everyone knows they’re “simpler” than they were; either way, players know they’re supposed to be more accessible, and it’s nice to see players attempting to use them. Now, they just need to figure out overrun and disarm.

Building Characters Largely Unchanged = Still Easy.

A lot of people—most on the internet, a few I know in real life—complain that making characters for 3.5 was just too hard. When asked, the reason is almost always that building good characters takes upwards of five hours, and when questioned further, the answer is amost always because finding that one good feat requires looking in all of the fifty-billion d20 books said person owns/borrowed/downloaded illegally.

Seriously. The hell.

You might recall, from the intro to this blog post, that I’ve had relatively little experience playing d20, compared to the gamer who, say, played it fairly regularly over the 6+ years… about the same amount of time I focused on non-d20 systems. The most I’ve ever spent on character creation was perhaps two hours, and that was figuring out how to properly break an Exalted character to dick with a GM who never got around to running the game. On short enough notice, I can pull a character concept out of my head (ranging from “actually serious” to “it will entertain me” in quality) and have any level character built in an hour or less. Pathfinder character creation is dead simple: choose your levels, copy them out of the book, and pick some feats. The new skill system simplifies things even more, since you don’t have to worry about multiplication or those pesky fractions.

Of course, I recognize the impetus to dive through every sourcebook I own (even the Mongoose Publishing and Avalanche Press ones I got in mixed lots), just to find that one feat that rocks out, so that the GM can tell me I can’t use it. At the same time, I also run via the simple house rule that both I and the players must own physical copies of the sourcebook in question. (I need to own it so I can reference it if needs be; they need to own it so they’re not asking me what the hell it does every ten minutes.) I’ll frequently break this to help out players, and still say no to a lot of things (“Can I have this feat which denies enemies their armor and Dex bonuses to AC?”), but it cuts out the powergaming chaff at character creation: didn’t bring the book, can’t have it.

Also, to keep things simple: if your villains take two years to build, stick with feats from the core book. I specifically stick to that when converting monsters—well, that and from the Bestiary and APG—because not everyone will have the specific sourcebook to reference. It’s speedy, it’s effective, it gives them a feat you’ll remember and that they might actually use. Other situations may call for other books—a necromancer would make me crack Libris Mortis, an illithid will have me drag out Lords of Madness, while Yaun-Ti and other reptiles will require Serpent Kingdoms and Ssethregore. But, seriously, if you’re having trouble building characters… don’t be an idiot, KISS it until you know your books like the back of your hand. Otherwise, feat shopping will be nothing more than a frustration.

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