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Fergie's page

Pathfinder Society Member. 2,102 posts (2,128 including aliases). No reviews. 1 list. No wishlists. 4 aliases.

About Fergie

Optimizing Pathfinder for Fun:

There are many great guides for building optimal characters for damage dealing, being invulnerable, battlefield control, and being Batman! While it is fun to play a character that excels at what they do, many players find that playing these builds results in a severe game often dictated by the first person to win initiative and go nova. The requirement to keep up with the Best Caster Build or Highest Melee Machine narrows the options down considerably. Likewise such characters require APL+3 (Epic!) or more encounters that bend the CR system in ways that make encounter design and management a more difficult task for the GM. The rules, the adventures, and almost everything else published is not intended for optimized play.

So what are these rules designed for, if not optimization? Like most other games, the intent is that these rules facilitate a GM and players to have fun. Sounds easy, but what is fun?

As a player, I have fun:

  • Controlling the actions of my PC.
    Customizing my PC with skills, feats, equipment, and other features.
  • Knowing that if I generally play well, and have a little luck, I will do well most of the time.
  • Having my characters decisions and actions affect the environment and story.
  • Getting experience and treasure that allows me to increase the power of my character.
  • Feeling that I can, and occasionally must do my best to defeat encounters.
  • Knowing that my fellow PCs are supporting me, and that we act in each others best interests.
  • Knowing that my PC is on par with the rest of the party and that we affect the game in fairly equal amounts.
  • Not knowing exactly what to expect, and trying to be ready for anything.
  • Even if bad things happen to my character, or the dice go against me, I still have fun if I am engaged in the game.
  • Feeling that in most opposed circumstances, it is the dice that decide the outcome.*

GMs enjoy the game for different reasons then players.
As a GM I have fun:

  • Presenting a campaign world with locations, encounters, mythos, timeline and NPCs.
  • Presenting a wide variety of encounters that engage the players, and encourage them to have fun playing their characters.
  • Knowing I have general control of the storyline and timeline, with occasional (sometimes unexpected) exceptions.
  • Knowing that players will use wits and creativity to solve encounters, and vary their tactics to fit the situation.
  • When everyone at the table participates in the game to the amount they are comfortable with.
  • When players are friendly, kind, and enjoy themselves.
  • While I decided if a roll is needed and add the modifiers, the dice decide the outcome.*

* GM, and even player "Cheating" (i.e. ignoring dice rolls) is a highly debatable topic. Like all issues, discuss it beforehand, and come to a consensus on how your group views it.

So how do we use the rules to make that kind of fun happen?
We start at the beginning - Creation!

Ability scores and character creation
First off, skip the dice. I know many people love rolling, but a few low rolls can result in less fun for the life of the PC. This can also result in dramatic party imbalances, and players unable to play the character they want. Let the dice decide what happens that round, not for life.

The point buy or stat array system used usually doesn't really matter much, in the sense that it slightly affects everyone in the group fairly equally (Low point buys actually benefit full caster types a little). The goal at this stage is to set the game up to work with the CR system, and encourage parity among classes throughout the game.

  • 10 Points - I generally avoid 10 point buy simply because players are unable to perceive how little it increases difficulty, and even expert players secretly don't want the added difficulty. The balancing effect isn't worth the whining, unless you have a large group of experienced players.
  • 15 Points - This is the "Standard" the game was balanced around, and should be the default for most groups of 4-5 players.
  • 20 Points - This is the PFS standard, and has become a default for many games. I recommend this for 3 person parties, inexperienced players, or players looking to try lower powered builds such as small martial characters, monks, or builds that fall outside the default role of the class.
  • 25 and up Points - While not much stronger then 20 points, this starts to bend the CR system in most games, and should be avoided except for unusual circumstances.

    This is normally where the players take over and deliberately or unintentionally exacerbate some of the worst balance issues of the game. The key to evening out those power imbalances is to start characters off by evening out their ability scores. For example, it is much more difficult to become a game shattering god wizard with a starting intelligence score of 16. I recommend limiting the max starting ability scores (AFTER racial adjustments) to 16 or 17! For the same evening-out reasons, I also recommend limiting minimum stats to 10 or 8 (AFTER racial adjustments). These limits will encourage PCs more capable of dealing with a variety of situations, and less able to damage game balance.

    Next is Hit Points. This is another area where many people have a wide variety of different methods that frequently bend game balance. Again, skip the dice, as no one wants to play a character that rolls a 1 every level, or be the sidekick to the guy who always rolls max. Follow the default max hit die (plus con modifier) for level one characters. After that, just give the PC happy side of average (plus con modifier) every level. PFS really got this one right. Generally, you should not modify this formula, as it can alter many factors such as the relevance of healing, AC, direct damage, etc.

    How does everyone have fun?
    So far we have significantly rebalanced the game, without really altering the rules, so much as providing guidelines for character creation. But perhaps I jumped the gun a little. Before we even get to character creation, it is probably a good idea for the GM to sit down with the players, and discuss what the expectations for the game are.

    I would start by going over the different ways the players and GM have fun and discussing them as a group. This is NOT the time to argue, it is a time to be HONEST with yourself and the group, and express and LISTEN to everyone's opinions. Do you like Rollplaying more then Roleplaying? Be open about it! Your not doing yourself or anyone else a favor by pretending to like things you don't really like. Be open to new experiences and playstyles, but express your desires and expectations honestly. Come to some kind of consensus with the GM and players about how you will all enjoy the game.

    In addition to how YOU have fun, this is a great time to discuss other aspects of play, such as:
    House rules.
    Use of computers and/or phones and access to reference material at the table. In general characters should have access to information about their own characters, but most GMs frown on players looking at information about enemies. Reading the adventure path or module is usually very strictly forbidden.
    What books and material are allowed in the game and what restrictions are there. Do these restrictions apply equally on both sides of the screen?
    Dice handling and GM and/or players ignoring dice. This usually take one of three forms:

    • -GM roles in the open, results are not altered by the GM
    • -GM rolls in secret, and may or may not follow the dice. Requires the players to trust the GM will fudge, but they will not know when, for fun to be maintained.
    • -GM dictates action in some opposed circumstances without dice rolls. Requires players to trust the GM will dictate the action for the benefit of the game (without the 'illusion' of dice rolls) for fun to be maintained.

    Amount of table time dedicated to combat, NPC interactions, and exploration.
    Amount of expected wealth, mundane and magic item availability.
    How downtime and/or crafting will be handled.
    Tracking of encumbrance, minor items, ammunition, rations, water, mounts, living expenses, etc.
    Tracking of important information such as HP, spells cast, limited abilities used, harmful conditions, etc.
    If tracking discrepancies occur, will there be punitive action?
    Level advancement - will the game use an XP advancement track or will leveling be handled a different way?
    How will PC death be handled and how will bringing new PCs into the game be handled. Note: I recommend bringing in new PCs at the same level as the rest of the party, but with the starting wealth of a character one level lower. I also disagree with the designers about allowing characters to exceed WBL if they have crafting feats. I feel this unbalances the game in favor of the classes that generally need the least help (especially wizards) and breaks the assumptions that a PC used all his powers to get his starting wealth.
    Expectations about what general types of encounters the PCs can expect. Players should be able to make informed decisions about character aspects such as favored enemy, deity and domains, schools, etc.
    How alignment will be handled. Is it polar (the rules/setting default) or more of a subjective "realistic" situation.
    Level of gore and sexuality in the game as well as any topics that players would have issues with encountering in game.
    Out of game issues like food, drugs/alcohol/smoking, money, attendance, guest etiquette, etc.

    Again, BE HONEST with yourself and the people you play with.

    The more you spread your ability scores out, the more you can contribute in a variety of situations. Always pay attention to weaknesses your character might have, and don't neglect the scores associated with that weakness. For example, clerics and druids have weak reflex saves, and can greatly benefit from a little dex. This can be especially true for will saves, as failing them can often result in loss of actions, or wost, your characters actions being dictated by the enemy. Failing saves and being consistently hit in combat is generally not fun for most players, so plan for strong defenses (adequate Dex,Con,Wis)

    To participate effectively in social situations it helps to have a little Cha, although Wis for sense motive is good in a pinch. Being able to put ranks into a variety of social and other types of skills (especially knowledge and languages) is easier when you have more Int. I don't want to leave out Str, especially for characters who wear armor, and want to deal weapon damage.

    Save the super raging power attacking crazy high damage stuff for when it is required. Put a little effort into ranged attacking, and consider what you can do when you can't be effective by doing melee damage. Put resources into AC (perhaps ude a shield sometimes) and will saves. Invest in being effective without raging and/or taking excessive damage. Other then intimidate, the class doesn't give many social options, but put some points into sense motive or diplomacy, keep your Wis high, and don't dump Cha or Int.
    Other then being aware that you can disrupt combat encounters with massive damage, barbarians are also more then capable of losing massive amounts of hit points as well. As the player of the Barbarian, YOU are responsible for dealing with this, and you should not expect any other player to give up their actions, spell slots, or resources without talking about it first.
    Bard is one of the funnest classes to play! You are great in social and skill situations, and with a little effort, you can be an archer, melee, or specialize in enchantment or illusion. You also have great skills, and inspire courage and many other buffs makes you welcome in any party. Huzzah!
    Clerics are a very powerful and very versatile class. By selecting domains, you gain access to all kinds of different spells and abilities. Channeling positive energy will make you an exceptional healer, and there are many great buff spells clerics can cast. You can melee, summon, blast, de/buff and more. Keep a supply of scrolls and potions around so you don't have to fill your memorized spells with delay poison and remove paralysis. Clerics are one of the most skill starved classes, so you will need to spread your ranks carefully.
    Similar to clerics, druids are versatile, and can be built to fulfill many different roles. Druids can be very powerful summoners, but this can really suck the fun out of the game if used excessively or if the player is not prepared and knowledgeable of the creatures abilities. It is generally best to only have one summon spell at a time, and be aware of affecting other PCs with you summons. A similar idea applies to some of the druids battlefield control spells like entangle and spike stones. Be careful not to slow the game down or interfere with other players.
    Fighters are the most consistently powerful martial characters, often the only one in the group who doesn't need time to get up to full power when suddenly facing an enemy. While fighters have many options for specializing in defense, archery, 2HD, 2WP, focus/specialization, maneuvers, they also have enough feats to do a few other things well in addition to their specialties. Fighters should mix up their tactics to best fit the situation and avoid over using action-denial tactics like tripping and grappling. Like Barbarians, fighters struggle to succeed in social situations, and have even less skill points to spend... dig deep.
    Monks are one of the most difficult classes to play and have fun with. Monks often feel overshadowed by the full BAB classes in combat, and lack decent options for ranged attacking. While monks have some great defensive abilities, AC is not among them, and they struggle with hit points as well. If you are going to play a monk, work with the other party members and get buff spells like mage armor and displacement cast on you. Monks also tend to do better in groups that play a more lawful style rather then chaotic kick-in-the-door-play.
    Paladins can be a very fun and powerful class to play, however, this class is more dependent on alignment then any other class. Be sure that the ENTIRE group is willing to compromise with a paragon of lawfulness and goodness. Create a code of conduct that your character will follow, and agree with the GM about what constitutes Lawful and Good.
    Rangers are a slightly odd class, with a little of everything, and a few amazing feats and options here and there. Like fighters, rangers class features/ feats focus them in a particular style, but with a little effort into diversity, they can participate in any situation. I highly recommend checking out the switch hitting ranger in Treantmonks excellent guide. Rangers do best in campaigns where their favored enemies and terrains come up frequently.
    The rogues problems are largely not the fault of the class, but rather the parts of the game that he specializes in. The rogue is generally consider to be the "skill monkey" however most skills do not ramp up throughout the game as well as other class features. The "skill monkey" is also the character who is expected to sneak ahead, scout, and find/disable/trigger traps, however, none of the other characters can generally be more then a liability for the rogue in these situations. This results in the situation of one player acting alone while the rest of the players wait, and the GM attempts to minimize the rogues spotlight time in order to get the other players back in the game. Finally, rogues generally require a fairly high level of game skill to do well in combat. If possible, work with the other players to maximize your assets and minimize your liabilities.
    Sorcerers can be very versatile, however it requires careful spell selection. Try to select spells that can be used in a variety of situations. Remember that you will be casting the same spells over and over (often round after round) so you don't want to select spells that will bog down the game, or focus too much on action denial. Spells that you can cast on other characters will always be appreciated. Sorcerers are one of the most skill starved classes, but have a great Cha for social situations.
    Wizards are generally considered the most powerful and easiest to optimize of the core classes. A high Int and focus on save-or-suck magic can upset game balance from the beginning, and full casters progressively get more and more spells that bypass common adventure plots. They also have access to crafting bonus feats that allow them to be masters of magic equipment far beyond their suggested wealth by level. The best way to play a wizard is to focus on teamwork and save your most powerful spells for when things are going badly for the party. If you use your magic to make the whole party succeed, everyone gets to participate, and the GM has a much easier time maintaining parity among party members. Be wary of using powerful spells with long duration such as command undead, dominate person, and planar binding. These spells can be used to drastically upset game balance and story development. Wizards (and other full casters) can eventually do things to break the game - so don't do those things.

    NEXT UP: GMing the Game

    Do your best to understand the rules and what aspects of the game you enjoy and why. I personally don't enjoy action denial and save-or-suck effects. I won't allow characters that are incapable of functioning with the group or as a part of the campaign setting. Every character is expected to be "special-forces" material, and be capable at what they do. You are part of an elite group that relies on each other for survival every day. Playing a "lone-wolf", psychopath, spoiled brat, revolting deviant, moron, jerk, or other non-team player will not be tolerated. Characters are generally not allowed to attack, target with hostile spells, or use adversarial skills on another PC. PCs are also expected to not steal from each other, or withhold information. All treasure discovered is considered group property until divided up. While I don't explicitly ban Evil characters, I don't really want to spend hundreds of hours of real time facilitating your character committing evil acts. It usually gets depressing fast. I won't allow player characters to make opposed rolls against each other (baring magical control)

    I also have policy of no rules exploiting. Bringing a character to the table who is going to disrupt play, destroy verisimilitude, or otherwise squelch the fun of others is unacceptable, regardless of optimization level.

    I expect the party to be able to handle the challenges of an adventure. They need to be able to participate in combats, heal injuries and conditions, talk to people, and a variety of other tasks. They don't have to do these things well, but they do have to be able to function in an adventuring environment.

  • The Caster - Martial Disparity:

    Or The Angel summoner and the BMX Bandit.

    The caster/martial disparity is a tendency for higher level magic using characters to outshine their non-magic using counterparts in many aspects of adventuring.

    Before we go further, let's get specific about what we are talking about here:
    Casters: For purposes of this topic, casters are the classes that have a caster level equal to class level, and generally have access to 9th level magic. Wizards are the most classic example of "caster", while druids, clerics, sorcerers, generally present similar issues. Classes that only have access to 6th level spells are generally considered "casters", although many people have far more problems with summoners then bards. Each class fits into the disparity is slightly different ways, although the end result is usually similar.

    Martials: Martials are classes that never have a caster level, and whose class features are usually extraordinary special abilities, not supernatural or spell-like abilities. Fighters are the most representative martial class, with rogues, barbarians, and monks presenting fairly similar issues.

    Others: Classes that have access to 4th level spells such as rangers and paladins are generally not considered to be representative of balance problems, and are used more as a reference point for appropriate class power rather then an exception to it. Some people put bards into this category, although summoners are almost always considered representative of casters.

    Now that we have defined the caster/martial part, let's move on to "disparity". While many words such as imbalance and inequity get used to describe the issue, it is important to realize this is NOT about identical performance, perfect balance or sameness! No one is asking for the classes to perform the same, or have perfect mathematical equality. Generally, people find the core problem to be a lack of options for out of combat effectiveness for martial characters. Beyond use of skills, martial characters generally have no class features that allow them to influence the narrative. Monks and rogues have adequate and great skills respectively, however both classes infamously struggle to stay relevant in combat. As both classes were recently rewritten in Pathfinder Unchained, I'm not going to bother discussing their previous issues, except to mention that they both required full round actions to contribute well, and almost completely lacked a decent ranged attack option.

    At the lowest levels of play, martial characters are often considered to be better off then casters. A strong fighter or skilled rogue can effectively solve most problems that low level adventures face, and magic is usually fairly limited. This is not to say that casters are weak, they are fully effective at facing CR appropriate encounters, and if built for it, can disrupt encounters from level 1.

    Most effects of the disparity begin around level 6, although they frequently don't affect gameplay much until level 11 or so. These effects can be broken into several categories.

    • Point Buy Economy. Casters generally need only one really good stat, and have numerous class features (magic!), and supernatural and spell-like abilities that benefit from that stat. They also have class features to boost that stat, or compensate for a lack of other stats. Wizards often have more skill ranks then rogues later in the game, and the spellcraft skill is what item crafting is based off of. Bards and sorcerers are well set up to dominate social encounters. Druids and clerics can have great perception and whopping will save modifiers.

    • Action Economy. Generally, martial characters need a full attack action to be fully effective, while casters can generally do almost everything as standard actions. Casters are also given numerous class features that allow their player additional actions. From an animal companion or familiar, to summoned creatures, to dominated or bound minions, casters frequently act for several creatures, while martials are often forced to spend actions moving, switching weapons, etc.

    • Economy Economy. Casters are far more adept at creating their own magic items. This can have a drastic effect on individual power as magic items make up a substantial chunk of a characters power, especially as they get to the mid to high levels. Wizards easily have whopping spellcraft, bonus crafting feats, and the ability to access or bypass many crafting requirements. While a caster can craft for other party members, those items are treated as purchased when calculating WBL, while items the caster makes for themselves count as cost to craft. This results in casters often having 125% to 175% of WBL. Since casters often don't need weapons (some of the most expensive items) and get amazing use out of stat boosting items, they are much better served by the game economy.

    • Skills vs. Spells - Some martials have can have substantial access to skills, however, even max ranks and a decent ability modifier in a class skill is often a very poor substitute for what a spell can accomplish. Skills are useful if you need to do a fairly easy task for a long time, but in many cases, magic allows automatic success for more time then you need to accomplish the task. For example, rather then make a bunch of climb and acrobatics checks to climb up a 100' wall and cross a narrow ledge, the caster can just fly right up, much quicker, and with no checks required. While skills do have their place, they are severely limited for classes like the fighter, and many other martial classes lack the ranks or class skills to use them effectively. Casters generally also have ways to increase their use of skills, while martials have none. Several casting classes are better able to use skills, and even the "master of skills" - the rogue, is often outdone by bards and even wizards.

    • Versatility. Martial characters generally have three basic options for dealing with a combat situation: Melee attack vs. AC, Ranged attack vs. AC, or Attack vs. CMD. In social or adventuring encounters, they can use a skill. Casters on the other hand, can target AC, touch AC, 3 saves, etc. they can use deal damage from 5 different elements, force, positive/negative energy, etc. The can alter the environment, add allies, move friends or foes, buff/debuff, etc. Outside of combat, they can do... well... anything they wish. Prepared casters also have the option of selecting spells based on what they expect to face on a given day. Martials generally have no class options to customize their PC for specific situations.

    What the caster martial disparity does NOT say (Or Myths about the caster martial disparity):

    • "Casters are better at fighting then martials" - Most people consider fighters and barbarians to excel at combat, however that is generally all they excel at. Due to limited skills and ability scores, and no class skills related to most social encounters, these classes are generally only able to contribute to combat, and even then frequently suffer if situations don't allow effective full attacking. While druids and clerics can be very effective in combat, it generally requires a few rounds, and the caster must sacrifice some casting power in exchange for martial prowess. The problem is that while the caster can play martial, martials can never play casters.

    • "Casters can finish any encounter with a single spell." - While this is occasionally true, the reality is that a spell is often enough to decide the encounter, while the martial characters often are just needed for coup de grace, or other shooting fish in a barrel uses.

    • "Casters are squishy" - Many people think that sorcerers and wizards are fragile and vulnerable on the battlefield. This has never been less true. Casters generally have good HP and thanks to spells like mirror image, invisibility, displacement and fly, they are often the safest PCs on the battlefield. All casters have good will saves, some have good fortitude saves, and they have numerous options for boosting saves, AC, HP, and other defenses. Casters also have ways to make themselves basically immune to everything from fire, to grappling, to mental effects. 3/4 BAB casters are generally not considered vulnerable on the battlefield.

    • "spells are a limited resource" - This was largely the balancing factor back in the AD&D era, however, running out of useful spells can easily be avoided once you get past the lower levels of the game. Most casters start with a few infinite-use 0 level spells, and frequently class abilities that can be used a half dozen times per day. Once you add in scrolls, wands, and other items, casters can frequently participate effectively in encounters without using any of their memorized spells or spell slots. Once you get past 10th level or so, most casters will have several dozen different daily options for effective magic use.

    Why the Caster Martial Disparity might not appear in your games.
    After leading a sheltered existence surrounded by luxury and game balance in his younger years, Prince Siddhārtha ventured out of his palace for the first time at the age of 29, accompanied by his charioteer Channa.
    Prince Siddhārtha - "Why is that Fighter limping and covered in blood?"
    Channa responded, "That Fighter has been injured in combat, and has no spells to heal with. Even the Heal skill is not a class skill for him."

    As Pathfinder is a highly complex game, and varies widely from table to table, there are almost in infinite number of reasons it might appear or not. Here are some of the most common reasons it might not affect your games:

    • Most of your play happens under 10th level.
    • Players don't choose to play pure martial, or pure caster characters.
    • Caster players don't optimize, and/or martial players optimize heavily.
    • There is a spoken or unspoken agreement not to use some options and spells.
    • The GM is highly skilled in pacing, presenting a campaign setting, presenting challenges, and giving rewards that even out or minimize the disparity.
    • The GM alters dice rolls, and/or encounters so that everyone has fairly equal amounts of success.
    • The group views combat and/or other rules heavy parts of the game as something to get resolved as quickly as possible, in order to move on to more roleplay and storytelling elements.
    • House rules.

    How to Fix the Disparity
    "...I don't think its as big a deal as the internet makes it out to be. In my games, casters and non-casters tend to be equally valuable to the party, and equally dangerous in various situations as enemies. ...
    ...responsibility to keep things fair and fun for all involved lands on the GM's shoulders. ....
    It's a balancing act."

    -James Jacobs

    • 1) When making characters, no starting ability scores above 16, or below 10 after racial adjustment.
      That fixes many of the problems of class power imbalance, without altering any rule.
    • 2) Remove hold person and dominate person from the game. (If you want to keep hold/dominate monster, at least they are higher level spells.)
    • 3) 7th, 8th, and 9th level spells take at least a full round action to cast. Optionally, all save or suck/die spells take 1 round to cast. Removing the highest level spells from the game, and using the slots for metamagiced lower level spells (heighten spell feat free?) is a more extreme option.
    • 4) Spells with a duration of days/level get changed to hours/level. Some permanent spells might have their duration reduced.
    • 5) Remove quicken spell from the game, or make it apply only to spells with a range of personal.
    • 6) Remove or rewrite known problems like dazing spell meta-magic, witches slumber hex, and other obviously broken stuff.
    • 7)Consider crafted items the same as purchased when determining Wealth By Level. I would also make master craftsman into a more useful feat. To take it a step further, you could make crafted items cost market price to craft.
    • 8)It should be noted that many aspects of casters are intended to be limited by the GM. Access to new spells, planar binding/ally, divination magic, etc. are not blank checks or guaranteed success.
    • 9)Many intelligent foes will ready actions to disrupt spell casting. While it should be done rarely and only by appropriate foes, things like targeting a casters component pouch, wands, familiar and even spell books are not out of the question.
    • 10) Communicate with the players and explain that you don't want a lot of action denial techniques used in the game. RPG-Tag is not a fun way to play. This applies on both sides of the screen. I don't want to consistently take a player out of action with save-or-suck and for similar reasons, I don't want players using those tactics on my named NPC/monsters.

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