On last Saturday I ran a session involving a witch and a cavalier. I don’t think the adventure or campaign background are relevant to the playtest, so I’ll just say that it was my spin on the traditional ‘a-pious-knight-tricked-by-witches’-plot with some additional twists and details. Four out of five PCs participated in the adventure: a human paladin, a dwarven fighter, an elven rogue and a half-orc cleric/paladin (all 3rd or 4th level PCs). All have above-average HPs and AC, although probably less magical items than typical PCs of their levels.
The first encounter was with a 7th level cavalier (Order of the Star) and his “minions” (4 human 3rd level warriors). The cavalier had masterwork equipment, a heavy war horse (advanced template) and a +1 Blinding Mithral Shield. The cavalier did not benefit from the shield’s ability in combat, because the PCs were crafty and surprised him as he was sneaking outside in the middle of the night on foot (to meet and consult an ally of the witches – an ally he considered to be a messenger of his god). Clever players role-played this pre-fight confrontation so well that the cavalier felt intimidated (and, frankly, naked without his horse) and used his shield’s ability twice to retreat to the shrine; this proved to be a crucial tactical mistake on his – and my –part, but since not every cavalier has such a shield anyway, I thought it wasn’t important for the actual playtest (i.e. melee). For the record, the cavalier had elite array for stats, AC 20, power attack, cleave, mounted combat, ride-by attack, spirited charge, trample and average HPs (49).
Finally, the cavalier and his men confronted the PCs in the open; I was expecting for a tough and challenging fight as the cavalier opened with challenging the paladin and charged for almost 30 points of damage (dropping the paladin to something like 20% of his HPs). Two “minions” hung back and peppered PCs with arrows (very unsuccessfully; this was a bad tactic, as they would have probably had a bigger impact in melee) and two engaged them in melee. The cavalier felt really strong against the paladin, and the cleric had his hands full trying to keep him on his feet. On the other hand, the fighter and the rogue had an easy time with him, as he was totally concentrating on the challenged foe (although I *did* let the him make AoOs against other PCs, and didn’t bother to check if he actually could).
The PCs quickly realized that the best tactic is to “tighten the web” around him after he has charged, i.e. try to get AoOs if he uses Ride-By Attack. The cavalier also failed every Overrun attempt he tried, so he didn’t benefit from Trample at all. His ‘hit-and-run’ tactic worked initially, but once the PCs had surrounded the paladin, the cavalier started to fall victim to at least two AoOs per round. His order ability (+2 to a roll if he spends a standard action) felt totally like a waste of a round, so he didn’t do it. In the end he just kept taking 5-ft. steps and full-attacking the paladin, and yet didn’t manage to bring down a single PC. The PCs prevailed far too easily to my taste, and although the paladin would have been killed without healing from the cleric, the cavalier felt to me like a “glass cannon” (against most PCs it would likely be one or two powerful charges and then the spellcasters would pick him off). I wonder if mounted “minions” to support the cavalier would have made a difference in this combat?
The second encounter was against a 4th level witch and her three ogre buddies. This combat started with the fighter critting the witch with his heavy crossbow, which almost killed her; she had to spend two rounds healing herself and by that time the combat was almost over. On the next round the PCs spotted her familiar and killed it. I was truly impressed that NONE of the PCs suffered a single point of damage from the ogres, and once the witch got off Web and Flaming Sphere (I had envisioned several PCs caught in the web and burning) only ONE of the characters failed his save against Web, and even he got out of it before Flaming Sphere hit. As the PCs knew they were dealing with mind-controlling spellcasters, all had ‘Protection from Evil’ on them, which eliminated all but three spells from the witch’s repertoire (my bad mistake, and I didn’t even give her any decent combat scrolls or wands!). This was a one-sided fight and the Hexes didn’t help the witch either (two out of three of her hexes were for “flavor”, i.e. ‘Disguise’ and ‘Blight’, and ‘Evil Eye’ didn’t help much either).
We wrapped up there with some encounters to go, but here are my thoughts more or less summarized:
- Too much overlap in benefits from Oaths and order benefits and “base” class features. Also, all order benefits should, in my opinion, be either automatical bonuses or swift actions (it’s rare, at least for NPCs, to get to “waste” a standard action in melee for a small personal bonus).
- Too few oaths – I used a religious LN cavalier who could only pick Justice and Protection, because he served the God of Justice and the rest didn’t either fit the story or his demeanor (and alignment). All in all the Oaths felt totally insignificant, and I’d think hard about replacing them or making sure they each grant a different type of bonus than your base and order abilities.
- The cavalier holds his own when he’s on “home turf”, i.e. in one-on-one or one-on-two melee combats in an open space against non-mounted opponents. If he’s dismounted or can’t reach the target of his challenge, he’s really screwed. I wonder how many PC cavaliers actually get to use all their abilities in a typical campaign – kind of hard when you lose half your class abilities in a dungeon.
- Challenge as it is now written is *brutal*… everyone gets to flank you, so throw in a couple of heavy-hitters and a rogue and you’re in trouble; if I played a paladin, I’d always make sure that I challenge rogues first and foremost.
- I think I could make a far more effective mounted combatant from a fighter or a paladin, and even the players mused if the cavalier, as a class, is needed. I *want* to like it, but as it’s written it feels a bit “sketchy” for me.
- All in all the witch felt initially good on paper (but see above and below), and the players said it sounds like a nice, flavorful class.
- Hexes need some boosting, and badly. I didn’t even need to think about choosing between spells and hexes – I understand that the latter are meant to add more flavor, but the more you invest in making a “real”, (Disney-type/folklore) witch that feels like a witch (Blight, Cauldron, Coven, Disguise etc.), the less powerful you end up as an NPC (aforementioned stuff is great for story purposes, but not much use against PCs or monsters).
- Out of the two playtested classes, the witch seems more complete, but doesn’t get to use hexes much in combat unless she’s a PC or there are a bunch of NPC witches against the PCs. Or if the PCs can’t get to the witch during the first rounds (and she’s still better off using spells). As a GM it feels irritating, because I’d really, *REALLY* like to use Evil Eye, Misfortune and Cackle (for example) against PCs, but using them are truly suboptimal choices in practice (at least in most scenarios I can envision). High-level witches with a bunch of “minions” might actually get to show their “witch stuff”. Maybe they should get less spells and more hexes (one/level, even)? Just a thought.
- Also, what makes hexes even further suboptimal are that far too many of them are melee touches that PROVOKE an AoO; I’d make them all ranged touches, or at least let the witch channel them via the familiar (she can do this with her spells, so why not with hexes?).
Finally we completed the second session of this playtest adventure. The final part included a couple of ogres, a few advanced bloody skeletons, a 5th level witch and her familiar, and the “boss” encounter: a sea hag with 6 skum “minions” -- plus a couple of traps, of course.
First of all, I have to say I LOVE the Templates in the ‘Bestiary’, and especially how Simple versions are easy to apply even in the middle of a fight (I did so with one of the ogres, and gave him the Advanced Template). Secondly, if you ask me, Paizo has done a very good job with re-evaluating monsters – a 3E Sea Hag (CR 3) would have likely killed at least one PC instantly (the fighter), and modifying the ‘save-or-die-instantly’ version of ‘Evil Eye’ into something thematically and mechanically more appropriate gets my approval!
Everything went pretty much as anticipated, especially with the ogres (although they almost managed to bring the rogue down) and advanced bloody skeletons (they channeled them into dust). I was rather surprised that they discovered and managed to disable the ‘Deep Slumber’ trap that was waiting for them at the entrance to the witches’ cave (which now had a single witch in it). She had succeeded in Perception, and had consumed two potions to boost her AC and survival chances (Potion of Barkskin and Potion of Blur). When the PCs dismantled her spell trap (still unaware of the witch who rolled 25+ on Stealth), she began with a ‘Stinking Cloud’ (lead PC failed his save, and blocked the path, nauseated). Then she cast ‘Summon Swarm’ and ‘Summon Monster III’. It turned out to be a more challenging fight for the PCs, because melee characters missed the witch a few times (they did hit her a couple of times), and the poor, nauseated rogue just tried to crawl away from the spider swarm (and, to his luck, succeeded in EVERY Fort save and I rolled damage poorly). The witch fell under ‘Hold Person’ for one round just as she had used ‘Misfortune’ Hex on the dwarven fighter and cackling to extend the duration (which made me sad!). Aside from the swarm, summoning spells did her little good (the PCs all have decent ACs for their level, and the monsters rolled poorly). This pretty much ended the fight, as she was surrounded and hacked to bits way too easily to my taste.
The final combat against the Sea Hag started promisingly, as the dwarven fighter failed his save and became staggered; he succeeded on his next save and the rogue succeeded, too, before everyone realized they can avert their eyes. Nobody was affected by her Aura, mainly because of the Paladin. This ended up being an easier combat than I predicted, as the skum only hit once or twice during the whole fight (and they didn’t roll poorly). I loved the new Sea Hag, because under different circumstances (more “minions”, perhaps, and if the PCs had failed in their saves more often) it would have been way more difficult to beat. It felt “just right” for a monster of its Challenge Rating, though.
The players were a bit dismayed that they couldn’t charge or run inside natural caverns or tunnels, which I think played against them nicely (the dwarven fighter has picked Dodge, Mobility and Spring Attack). In the end they compensated with well-honed group tactics and spells.
Some additional thoughts about this session:
- I’m still of the mind that all or at least MOST hexes should be ranged touch attacks OR used as a swift action (alongside touch spells, for example). I know the witch has her spells, but what’s the point of flavorful, cool class features, if they’re always suboptimal choices in combat? Or, alternatively, maybe they should all be related to non-combat situations in the same way ‘Blight’, ‘Disguise’ and ‘Cauldron’ are?
- Maybe the familiar should be able to deliver Hexes, too? Just a thought, although “sacrificing” them this way seems a bit foolish (although I *DID* try it once with disastrous results, as described above). All in all they felt pretty worthless in combat, and I totally forgot about the second witch’s familiar (I just told the players it had fled as the witch was slain).