Tag Archives: System Critique

Dear Pathfinder,

LS is Breaking up with PathfinderPathfinder and I have had a long and tumultuous relationship.

When I started Papers & Pencils, then called “Comma, Blank_,” I was still a D&D 3.5 player. I was aware of Pathfinder, but preferred to stick with the system I already had 30+ supplements for. About two years ago, by some happenstance, I was chatting with a fellow at my local comic book store, Fantasium. He was interested in starting a Pathfinder campaign, and he seemed cool, so I gave him my email address and purchased the Pathfinder Core Rulebook on an impulse. I never heard from that guy again, which didn’t matter much, because I was thoroughly impressed by Pathfinder’s improvements to 3.5. My initial reaction to the system was nothing but fawning praise, and I immediately started referring to this as a “Pathfinder Blog.”

Then I found Hack & Slash, and from there started to explore more of the OSR. I was exposed to a greater diversity of game design theories than I had known existed, and many of my fundamental ideas were challenged. My opinions began to shift. Issues which I had previously viewed as “the limitations of tabletop games,” became “the limitations of the tabletop games I’ve played.” As an example, I had long been frustrated by how difficult it was to get players to manage their characters on their own, the OSR made me realize that perhaps my game was asking them to manage too much shit.

In the last two years I’ve become increasingly dissatisfied with Pathfinder. One reader* recently told me they were surprised I still played, given how critical I am of it. And truth be told, I don’t. Not really. I do still have one Pathfinder game in progress, but I run it in such a modified form that there’s about as much Pathfinder left in that game as there is man left in Darth Vader. And when this campaign ends (presumably when I move away from the players) I doubt if I’ll ever start another game based on the Pathfinder rules.

Put plainly, Pathfinder and I have parted ways.

That doesn’t mean you’ll never see another Pathfinder post here. I’d like to finish my Pathfinder Class Analysis series, because I’ve found that project to be fertile grounds for game design inspiration. I’ve also got at least one pathfinder-specific project which I’ve wanted to finish for years now, but have been putting off because I’m lazy and dumb and lazy. What it does mean is that Colorful Characters, Merciless Monsters, and Magical Marvels won’t be posted with Pathfinder game rules any longer, which is a big relief for me, because fitting everything into the Pathfinder framework was exhausting work.

Since 90% of my readership is non-pathfinder players anyway (somehow I ended up as an honorary initiate in the OSR?) I presume this news is long overdue for most of you.

(*Hi Matt!)

Are Dead Levels a Bad Thing?

Cover the the D&D 3.5 Player's Handbook from Wizards of the Coast
Cover of the D&D 3.5 PHB

The exact meaning of a ‘dead level’ depends on who’s talking. I’ve heard a number of different definitions:

  • A level where the only improvement the character benefits from is increased HP. Typically used for oldschool games, since I don’t think a level like this ever exists in D&D 3.5 or Pathfinder.
  • A level where nothing improves about the character save for basic numbers stuff, such as HP, Saves, and Base Attack Bonuses.
  • A level where the character does not receive any new special abilities, though they may increase their HP, Saves, BAB, Ability Scores, or number of feats.

Here, I’ll be using that last definition, since it is the one which is most relevant with regards to the changes made between Dungeons & Dragons 3.5, and Pathfinder.

Back when I started playing tabletop games, around the advent of D&D 3.5, I often felt as though my character’s progress was painfully slow. I was excited to become more powerful, and nothing was worse than leveling up and realizing that very little had actually changed for my character. Dead levels were a serious frustration, because at that time planning out my character’s mechanical development was important to me.

When I originally read the Pathfinder rules, I praised them for the way dead levels were eliminated from the game. It meant players could spend less time waiting, and more time improving their character’s build. And I was right. Pathfinder does allow players to spend more time working on their build.

This is a good thing, because a big part of the appeal for RAW 3.5/PF is building your character. If the players are playing to build characters, and they almost never get to do that, then the game isn’t providing a satisfying experience. Dead levels are a huge issue, and should be eliminated.


I no longer enjoy building my character. I’m not interested in playing a tabletop game where this is my goal, and I’m not interested in running a tabletop game where this is the goal of my players. Such gameplay is perhaps better suited for a video game or board game, where rules are more clear-cut and easy to enforce. In a tabletop game where the rules ought to be flexible and players are owed a logical explanation for any limitations placed on them, I don’t feel that it works.

So in the type of game I like to play and run, what is the point of leveling at all?

Improvement can be valuable without being the focus of attention. It can even be an important goal for the players without being the focus of attention. My goal is to provide my players with a game where they feel as though they can work towards any skill or goal diegetically. The advancement granted them by their class should be simple and easy to record & remember. More individualized character improvement can be sought out through gameplay, regardless of whether the character has leveled or not.

Dead Levels are only a problem if leveling up is the only means of improvement your characters have available to them.

Pathfinder Class Analysis 11: Wizard

Paizo's Iconic Wizard
Paizo’s Iconic Wizard

Core Concept: It’s the wizard; true descendant of the magic user. I said earlier that if there were only one class, it should be the fighter. Well, if there were only two classes, then the second should be the wizard. While other styles of caster can add depth to the game, none has ever inspired my imagination the way the wizard does. I think there’s something to be said for a class which uses books being powerful in a game contained within books.

Spells / Spellbooks: Vancian magic has been a subject of heated discussion since the release of 4th edition several years ago. And while I don’t want to delve too deeply into the pros and cons, I will say that I like Vancian magic. No big surprise, I know. I find it simple enough that people don’t have trouble understanding it, functional enough that it doesn’t harm gameplay, and flavorful enough that it doesn’t feel like a purely mechanical system put in place to serve function and simplicity.

I will add, though, that I think I’d prefer it if wizards never gained spells automatically upon leveling up, and were instead forced to research new spells right from level 1. Further, I think the class could make do with fewer spell slots. I may have suggested something like that in the past.

Arcane Bond: Like the druid, paladin, and ranger before it, arcane bond is the wizard’s pet choosing ability. On the one hand they can gain a familiar, as wizards traditionally do, on the other hand they can gain a bonded item. My thoughts on these choices haven’t really changed, so lets ignore the choice and focus on the bonded item ability. Essentially, the wizard selects an item through which they’ll focus their spellcasting, like a wand. The wand confers certain bonuses to them, and they find it very difficult to cast without it. Once per day, the wizard may use the bonded item to cast a spell from their spellbook which they have not prepared in advance.

This is super duper awesome. Because while I like for players to be forced to think ahead and plan their spell use, I also like the idea of a single-use backup in case something unexpected comes up. It’s not for every game, but it’s certainly an interesting mechanic for pathfinder. With the added bonus that it requires players to store their magical energy in an item which can be stolen by villains to reduce the wizard’s effectiveness.

Arcane Schools: I’m not fond of how Pathfinder handles arcane schools for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, in D&D 3.5, a character’s barred school absolutely could not be cast from. In Pathfinder this restriction has been lessened so that barred schools are simply more difficult to cast from. Often during these posts I’ve expressed a preference for allowing the character to do cool things rather than simply try to do cool things. This is the inverse of that. If the players need to make a choice which will limit them in the future, then those limits should be concrete. I don’t see any reason to buff the class this way.

My second issue with arcane schools is that they’re made into watered-down bloodlines. Part of what makes bloodlines so great is that they make the sorcerer class distinct from the wizard. Why diminish that effect by giving the wizard such a similar ability?

Cantrips: Unlike yesterday, I quite literally have nothing to say about Cantrips which wasn’t already said when I wrote about orsions back in the cleric analysis.

Scribe Scroll: When I first reread this entry for the analysis, I didn’t think much of it. Level one bonus feat for scribing scrolls, it works, whatever, move on. But upon reflection, I think credit needs to be given for this idea. The wizard, the caster who performs magic with the power of their intellect, is able to work their magic into scrolls. Other casters can do this as well, but only the wizard does not require special training.

It’s not a huge deal, but I kinda like that touch.

Bonus Feat: What a lame ability to end on! I’ve written so much about bonus feats across the numerous classes which have them, that I don’t really know what else to say. I always felt like, compared to other classes, the sorcerer and the wizard had the least interesting feat selection. Bonus feats just seem to stretch an already thin selection.

With the exception of the Fighter, bonus feats always seem like the kind of thing which is added to a class when nobody can think of anything better to give it. So it seems odd to me that they weren’t thrown out when everybody realized the wizard was insanely overpowered and needed to be scaled back in Pathfinder.

In Conclusion: With the Wizard, I’ve completed my look at the 11 core classes in Pathfinder. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading it even half as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it, because these were really fun, even if it wasn’t the most serious-minded analysis. Writing about what I want from each class has helped me better understand what I want from a tabletop RPG. I think I’ll be better at developing my own ideas now, having identified what I liked and disliked about these.

As I’ve mentioned in the past, I’d like to write similar posts about the non-core base classes. Paizo has done a good job on them, and hasn’t gone overboard the way Wizards did with 3rd edition. But after two solid weeks, I think everybody could use a break!

Pathfinder Class Analysis 10: Sorcerer

Paizo's Iconic Sorcerer
Paizo’s Iconic Sorcerer

Core Concept: While the sorcerer is objectively more limited than the wizard, I like the class. Even in the earliest, simplest forms of D&D, playing a Magic User meant taking on an extra layer of rules and complexity. There’s not much that can be done about that, but the sorcerer’s limitations go a long way towards mitigating it. For that reason, I often recommend sorcerers to my less experienced players who want to play a magical character.

Were it up to me, I think there might even be a few more variants on the magic user class, all of which would interact with magic in a different way.

Spells: Unlike the more traditional magic user / wizard style of spellcasting, the sorcerer is a ‘natural’ caster. They know the spells they know, and can cast any spell they know at any time, but they can’t add to their spell repertoire the way a wizard can. In trade, the sorcerer is able to cast more spells per day than their more learned counterpart. Back in D&D 3.5, this trade was terribly unbalanced in the wizard’s favor. Fortunately, bloodlines have helped to balance this out.

As mentioned above, I like the idea that different arcane spellcasting classes would manage their spells differently. Though I might take it even a step further. Perhaps granting the sorcerer a few more spells per day, a few more spell slots, and make all of their spells completely random. After all, if their power is a naturally developing thing, why should they be able to pick and choose?

Of course, that would never fly with most RAW Pathfinder players.

Find Familiar: This is not a sorcerer ability, which is why it is not linked. I bring it up because in D&D 3.5, it was a sorcerer ability. To my knowledge, this is the only instance where a class had an ability removed* in the change from D&D 3.5 to Pathfinder. Likely because Bloodlines are such a large change which grant the sorcerer a large range of additional powers.

While it is still possible to get a familiar, I rather prefer the class without it. As a friend of mine said shortly after we found Pathfinder, familiars never seemed to be in tune with the way sorcerers approach magic. A familiar, in our eyes, is primarily meant to assist the caster in magical research, which the sorcerer never needs to do. And bloodlines are so awesome, that it hardly feels like anything was lost at all.

*I am well aware that the Rogue had the Improved Evasion ability removed, but it remains as a rogue talent**, so it’s still easily attainable without needing feats.
**I am also well aware that sorcerers may select the arcane bloodline and thus get their familiar without needing a feat. However, doing so requires you to make a choice which will dramatically change the way your character progresses, whereas the rogue can pick up improved evasion and move on. There are no long-lasting consequences for getting improved evasion as there would be for a sorcerer who wanted a familiar.

Eschew Materials: Sorcerers cast their spells naturally, so it would be cumbersome for them to deal with material components. This works fine.

Cantrips: Anything I might say about cantrips was already written about Orsions in my analysis of the Cleric. Though I would add the caveat that the sorcerer is the only class where limitless low level casting actually kinda makes sense. I could be okay with the sorcerer having this ability if every other magic using class did not have it.

Bloodlines: Most of the sorcerer’s class abilities fall within the bloodlines, so I’ll be discussion bloodline skills, arcana, powers, spells, and feats individually. However, as a general concept, it’s important to know that I think bloodlines are a great idea. In D&D 3rd edition, the origin of a Sorcerer’s power was given a bit of throwaway fluff text about how sorcerers are descended from dragons, but that this might be true or might simply be something sorcerers like to boast about.

The Pathfinder devs took that piece of throwaway fluff, and developed it into an interesting mechanic which further differentiates sorcerers from wizards. And while I’m not always wild about the specific ways in which bloodlines are implemented, they’re still awesome.

Bloodline Skill: Each bloodline grants the sorcerer one additional class skill, relevant to the bloodline. Much as I dislike the skills system, this seems like a creative way to use it.

Bloodline Powers: The powers are my favorite part of the bloodlines. I think that if it were up to me, spells and feats would be dropped, and bloodline powers would be emphasized further. The specific powers are rarely filler nonsense, but are instead interesting abilities, such as elemental resistance, long limbs which grant extra range on touch attacks, a breath weapon, wings, or any number of other interesting oddities. I also think it’s cool that some of the powers aren’t perfectly suited to a sorcerer. A claw attack, for example, doesn’t really help someone who does their best to stay out of melee. But having an odd ability here or there can really come in handy when the characters are in a pinch.

Bloodline Arcana: The arcana abilities are really just Bloodline Powers which permanently modify a normal sorcerer ability, rather than introducing something new. What is written above applies, though these often enter “filler ability” territory, where they merely grant a small bonus in a very particular circumstance which most players will forget about during play.

Bloodline Spells: Bloodline spells are similar to a cleric’s domain spells. I hate domain spells, because they’re an extra layer of pointless complication which doesn’t improve the player’s gameplay experience in the slightest. That being said, bloodline spells work a little better than domain spells do. Since sorcerers don’t have to prepare their spells each day, but instead have a permanent list of spells which they ‘know’ and may cast at will, the bloodline spells don’t significantly increase the bookkeeping the player needs to do. They just write the spells on their spell list when they level up.

This still seems a little annoying to me, though. Perhaps it’s just a personal peeve, but I think it’s annoying to get the same thing (in this case, spells) from multiple sources (in this case, leveling up & bloodlines).

Though if sorcerers had their spells randomized, as I suggested earlier, then Bloodline spells could serve as a way for the player to have some control over how their character’s spell list developed.

Bloodline Feats: They’re feats. We all know how I feel about feats by now, right? Though I do kinda like that some of these feats are completely different from anything a sorcerer would normally pursue. Seriously, “Cleave” is in there at least once.

Pathfinder Class Analysis 9: Rogue

Paizo's Iconic Rogue
Paizo’s Iconic Rogue

Core Concept: In ages long past, when the world was shrouded in the mist of ignorance and I was but a young boy, my very first D&D character was a rogue named Tarin Resche. I’ve still got his character sheet. Once that campaign ended and it was time to begin another, my next character was also a rogue, as was the following character, and even the character after that. To say I like rogues would be an understatement. This is my class, and I love it. It took me a long time to branch out into trying other classes, though I did eventually do that.

The rogue/thief class is perfectly suited to the fantasy adventure genre. They’re not big and strong, nor are they magically adept. They’re not good at staring danger in the face. What they do know how to do is how to avoid danger in the first place. Which, consequently, is why I can’t stand playing rogues in most video games. For me, the point of playing a rogue is to skillfully avoid danger. In a video game, typically you can only level up if you charge headlong into danger.

The rogue is actually quite simple for a Pathfinder class, with a scant 9 abilities, compared with classes like the monk which have more than 20. So this’ll be pretty brief.

Sneak Attack: In Pathfinder, I think it’s a little too easy to get a sneak attack. But this balances out, because sneak attack doesn’t actually deal all that much damage. So you might say that the sneak attack ability works, it just doesn’t work the way I’d want it to. I’d much prefer sneak attack to require careful planning on the part of the player, and for the damage it deals to be a probable 1-hit-kill.

Trapfinding: To be honest, I kinda hate trapfinding. Not because there’s anything wrong with it, but because it’s so damn skill-ish. Rogues should have a leg up on finding and disabling traps, no question. I just wish Pathfinder didn’t rely on the skills system to do it.

Evasion: It’s hilarious that out of all the classes which have Evasion / Improved Evasion, the rogue is the only one which doesn’t automatically receive the improved version. I know it’s available as an optional talent, but this still seems backwards to me.

Rogue Talents / Advanced Talents: The rogue makes up for its rather paltry list of 9 abilities by having these “talents” which allow the player to customize the class. Some of them are quite interesting, and if I wanted to delve into the talents in detail, discussing which are good and which are bad, this post could easily be 3k or 4k words long. But I won’t do that. I’m not even going to devote much space to discussing them in general, because they’re just re-branded feats. Sometimes literally.

I’ll grant that few or none of the rogue talents fall prey to my problem with feats, where the ability granted is something any character should be able to attempt anyway. None the less it’s a huge list of abilities which the player has to select from, which Pathfinder has too much of already.

Trap Sense: I always get this one mixed up with Trapfinding, which is probably because of three things. First, they have similar names. Second, they seem like a pretty basic rogue ability. Third, they both seem far more complicated than they need to be. Though I’ll grant that Trap Sense (bonus to reflex saves and AC against traps) is less annoying than Trapfinding (Bonus to preception and disable device checks against traps).

While I’m on the subject, why is “Trapfinding” one word, but “Trap Sense” is two?

Uncanny Dodge / Improved Uncanny Dodge: While these are solid abilities, I don’t know if I like their inclusion. I understand the logic behind them. The rogue is very dextrous and has a high level of situational awareness, thus they cannot be caught flat footed, and cannot be flanked. But I think my dislike for them stems from my dislike of the way sneak attack works in Pathfinder. In both cases, Pathfinder represents the rogue’s situational awareness mechanically, while I prefer for it to be represented with the player’s own ability to play their character cautiously.

As I said, though, these are solid abilities. I’m really just nitpicking about my own preferences.

Master Strike: The target can either be put to sleep, paralyzed, or killed outright, pending the result of a fortitude save. It’s a respectable capstone ability, without anything I really want to comment on.

This may have been the most boring class analysis yet, which isn’t what I wanted for my favorite class in the game. But I guess I just don’t have much to say about these abilities.

Pathfinder Class Analysis 8: Ranger

Paizo's Iconic Ranger
Paizo’s Iconic Ranger

Core Concept: Who, honestly, doesn’t love rangers? They’re the loner badasses that we all role played as back when we were more interested in power fantasies than we were with a challenging game. But unlike our characters who never left the shadowy corner of the bar (save when they were killing people with an impossibly fast, double-bladed sword slice to the throat), rangers are at least a little grounded.

You know, much as I love magic users, I think the classes I find the most personally appealing are the grittier ones. The ones with dirt under their fingernails and callouses on their hands. The fighters, the rangers, the rogues.

Which is funny because I’m a pudgy guy who avoids sunlight, dislikes manual labor, and has frequently been accused of having ‘lady hands.’

Favored Enemy: More than anything else, the favored enemy mechanic defines the ranger class for me. It’s perfectly suited to a fantasy world’s exaggeration of a hunter, and it provides each ranger with an interesting motivation.

It’s also totally xenophobic, but in an awesome way.

Track: Like favored enemy, the ability to track an inherent part of the ranger class. Unfortunately, Pathfinder ties it into the broken skills system, which in turn breaks this ability. And while I think it’s valuable for track to have a failure chance, there’s no need to make it as complicated as the skills system.

I’d prefer something on order of using scaling dice for difficulty. 1d12 for easy, 1d10 for moderately difficult, 1d8 for very difficult, and 1d6 for hard. The GM picks a number within the die’s range, and the player rolls that die. If they land on the number the GM was thinking of, the GM gives them the wrong direction. If they land on any other number, the ranger succeeds. No checking the character sheet for bonuses, or trying to figure out what bonuses apply to which action. Just a single, quick, die roll.

Wild Empathy: Wild Empathy suffers from the same issue that Track does. It’s good that a ranger is able to soothe wild beasts and become friendly with them, it’s a bad thing that this ability must be tied to the broken skills system.

As an idea, assume that reaction is being handled with an oldschool 2d6 reaction roll. If the creature is a wild animal, a ranger may attempt to empathize with the animal, which would call for a second reaction roll, and the better of the two would be used. Starting at 3rd level, the ranger could add 1/3 of their level to the second reaction roll. (+1 at 3rd level, +2 at 6, so on until reaching +6 at level 18).

Combat Style Feat: This one makes me feel conflicted. On the one hand, I’ve reached a point where I honestly don’t like having the player make choices about their build. I’ve found that basically no player I’ve ever played with actually likes it. Most view it as a chore, while only an obsessive few (like me) ever claim to have fun ‘working on their build.’

On the other hand, this is a very simple, very cool choice which must only be made once, and has a dramatic effect on the character’s progress: do you want to be a two-handed fighter, or an archer? It’s also relevant to note that (unlike most character build choices) this decision is not about comparing specific abilities, it’s about defining the type of character you want to play.

With a gun to my head*, I’d say this is a pretty good ability.

*It sounds more interesting than “With a self-imposed deadline to my head.”

Endurance: The feat is well suited to rangers, though it’s stupidly complicated. It gives so many minor and circumstantial bonuses that I doubt anyone ever remembers to use anything other than the ability to sleep in armor without becoming fatigued. Which, to be fair, makes good sense for the ranger.

Favored Terrain: Hands down, one of the best changes made in the switch to Pathfinder. Holy fuck on a fucka-fuck, do I love favored terrain. This is on par with the fighter’s ability to become more proficient in the use of armor.

Hunter’s Bond: There’s not a lot to say about this ability which I haven’t already said before. It’s another ability which asks the player to choose between a pet, or something easier to track than a pet. My response is the same as it was for the Druid and the Paladin: make pets simpler.

To make matters worse, the ranger’s alternative to a pet is essentially the same as the Paladin ability “Aura of Justice,” which I also didn’t like. So that’s just stacking bad on top of bad.

Spells: As I mentioned in the Paladin analysis yesterday, there’s no reason for rangers to have spells. Rangers are men and women of great skill, not of magic. I would even argue that ranger spells diminishes the class, because it implies that all ranger abilities might be somehow bolstered by magic.

Even the most popular modern representation of a ranger, the much-maligned Drizzt Do’Urden, has no magical abilities. And he’s explicitly a ranger within a Dungeons and Dragons game world.

Woodland Stride: Rangers ignore underbrush. This is a good mechanic, no change needed.

Swift Tracker: This ability fails to impress me, but only because it builds on the parts of the tracking ability which I didn’t like. The parts which intersect with the broken skills system. It’s easy to implement into my own system. “If the player moves at their normal speed when tracking, the GM selects two adjacent numbers which would cause failure if rolled. Once a ranger gains the swift tracking ability, this penalty is removed.”

Evasion / Improved Evasion: Holy crap, how many frickin’ classes have this ability? I seriously have nothing to say about it at all. Cut me a break here, Paizo.

Quarry /Improved Quarry: I actually like these abilities. They connect well with other elements of the ranger class, and strengthen the theme of the hunter. But I have one very important question: how do they work? Because they they’re explicitly not magical [they’re marked with (Ex), which means extraordinary ability, which means not magical]

It’s understood how favored enemy works. The character has studied that type of creature, and knows its strengths and weaknesses. But what happens in the space of a standard action (or free action!) which allows the ranger to gain further bonuses against their officially designated Quarry?

Are they noticing a fighting pattern, and a specific way the quarry walks? Is that where they get attack and tracking bonuses from?

Camouflage / Hide in Plain Sight: While these two abilities aren’t really all that similar, I have pretty much the same thing to say about them. They both work sufficiently well, though would be improved by not being tied to the skills system.

Master Hunter: When I first read Pathfinder, I came away with the impression that at level 20, every class gains some manner of ‘instant death’ attack. In re-reading each class for these analyses, I’ve found that impression was more than a little off base. Certainly many classes have a death attack, but many (even most) do not. In fact most capstone abilities are pretty flavorful, and the ranger’s is no different. It’s essentially an instant “knockout” attack, useful if the player wishes to capture rather than kill. I like it!

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