I don't always make it clear why I like some classes and dislike others. I figured if I wrote my Optimization theory and the standards around it more posts will make more sense. Clarity is good.
When I say Optimization I don't mean flat out Min/maxing. Sure a wizard can pump his Intelligence to the point where everything pretty much auto fails saves vs his spells but he'll have no hit points, poor saves, and go last every round. In other words he'll be dead shortly and its hard to be effective when you are dead.
A well optimized character can do his or her job well and has few if any weaknesses. IMHO all characters should have at least a 12 Constitution because everyone from time to time is going to get hit and make fortitude saves.
Lets start with defenses. In general all characters should have save bonuses in all three categories equal or exceeding their character level. If one has to be sub-par Reflex is the least likely to end your characters life. Keeping this up to level 20 is very tough for many classes since often Wisdom or Dex are dump stats. I don't recommend every dumping Wisdom unless you have at least 2 levels of Paladin and a big Charisma score. Dumping Dex is still a bad idea in most situations but a 10-12 is usually ok as long as you have healing available and extra movement options (though I'm not sure how you'd avoid Dazing spells).
Armor Class is a bit odd. It works great for the first 5 levels or so and then begins to loose its effectiveness. The general rule with AC is for it to be your level +20. That will keep all but the bosses from hitting you 95% of the time. It is harder to boost Touch AC but it comes in very handy in those situations where you are fighting nasty things with touch attacks (like undead) or ranged touch attacks (like wizards). AC is really only useful for those classes that like to get up close and personal with the bad guys but all classes should have some sort of defense on standby.
For the melee types a miss chance is often better than high AC. Mirror Image or Displacement are great as is the Duelist's Parry or the pre-nerf Crane Wing deflection. Considering how difficult to get and pricey Damage Reduction is, I imagine that must work pretty well too but I'm never played a character that's put it to good use.
Offense is a tough one. If you are playing published adventures like an Adventure path, they tend to be based around non optimized characters and players that use team work and understand the game. Well optimized offensive characters tend to kill things pretty quickly and eventually the DM is going to start compensating by adjusting the monsters or at least boosting hp. In some ways its an arms race that really isn't worth taking part in. The party needs to be able to have high "To Hit" bonuses when required, have the ability to target Touch AC and some area effect damage for those god awful swarms. Really, damage dealing types should be able to kill any equal CR critter in about three rounds or less assuming full attacks. Of course extra fire power is always good if you can call on it when you need it.
Roles: There are several roles that characters can fill and any well optimized character should excel at his or her roll and be able to assist in other areas.
Meat Shield: Someone has to get between the squishies and the monsters. There are lots of ways to do this. Any character with good melee defenses as listed above or you can use disposable tanks like summoned monsters. The only real requirement is that it has to be threatening enough to keep your opponents attention. The tin can fighter that does 3 points of damage will be ignored but the gargantuan lake octopus that is grappling everything will not.
The Face: This one depends on how much roleplaying is actually being done. If you play with a group where entire sessions go by with no blood being spilt I have you have some ranks in one of the social skills or your GM gives good bonuses for good roleplaying. Otherwise, social skills can be very helpful but are usually not essential with the possible exception of Diplomacy. That skill is so versatile at least someone in the party should be at least reasonably good at it.
The Brain: While this often falls to the wizard, as long as all of the key Knowledge skills for identifying monsters are covered (Arcane, Planes, Religion) the rest are just a bonus. In a party without a high Intelligence class, each PC could take one skill and you'd have your bases covered. The other knowledge skills are useful and flavorful but really how often in a campaign is Engineering going to be useful?
The Buffer: All magic classes get buffs and these can act as a massive force multiplier. A party that is entering battle with Good Hope, Barkskin, Haste and Inspire Courage is going to be massively more effective than a party without.
The Debuffer: This role is not as effective as the buffer since here you often have to defeat saving throws for the debuffs to stick. The Witch class is probably the best debuffer and can set up any BBEG for what is almost an autofail saving throw with a round or two of prep. I would also put characters that specialise in Save or suck spells here as well since its all about taking opponents out of the battle.
Support: Problem solving. Having the right skills is a good help at low levels but quickly gets surpassed by magic. Flying, Stone Shape, Teleport, Gaseous Form, Disintegrate, Clairvoyance, Divination are all great ways to solve problems. Trap finding falls into this category as well but unlike earlier editions of the game its not as essential as it used to be. If you can be an effective trap finder while still able to focus on your primary role then go for it. Your party will thank you.
Healing: You don't need a good healer but life is much safer with one around. As long as you carry around crates of Cure Light Wounds wands and someone can use them to patch up injuries after combat you will probably be ok. Until Heal comes along healing during combat is not really your best move in most cases but its very helpful to have the standard Remove Poison, Disease, Curses, Restoration spells available, although potions and scrolls will again fill the gap. Heal is a big game changer in Pathfinder since its likely the first time you can heal damage faster than it is being delivered.
Damage dealer: almost everyone should be able to contribute here. Again its good to have a variety of damage dealing types. A few heavy hitter melee types, an archer, and a caster with a few blasty spells on standby.
Lastly don't spend all of your money on a handful of really nice items since you'll often do better but spreading the money around over a variety of magic item slots. One should have a Bag of Holding or even better - a Handy Haversack to store your collection of potions and scrolls within. After you've been hit with a blind effect its great to reach into your Handy Haversack and automatically get the right potion.
So that is my take on optimization in Pathfinder. It's more art than science. There isn't only one way to do it right but there are many ways to do it wrong since Pathfinder is full of terrible (or at least non optimized) options.
Setting up boss fights is always tough. Too strong and you TPK the party, too weak and the boss gets rolled easily. The PCs were ready to fight Ara Mathra. I upgraded him from a Movadic Angel to a Planetar. He was able to scry on the party and new all of their tactics and how they had buffed. He was also buffed and was ready to go. I had what I thought was a great strategy.
It started out pretty well. The melee combatants were foiled by Anti-Life Shell, the archer cleric was rolling like mad and inflicting tons of damage. It took two tries but the wizard was able to bring down the Shell and most of his other buffs after a lucky caster level check. The PCs were hurting him but he was able to heal most of it back. I quickly realized that if I kept playing defense I had no chance so the angel cast Holy Word only to have it interupted. The second attempt was successful but I made a huge tactical blunder by not moving after the spell went off and blinded the entire party. The melees swung blindly made a couple lucky hits and that was the end of Ara Mathra.
I have to admit I was a bit disappointed that I made such a dumb mistake but I don't think it really changed the outcome too much. Five level 12 PCs versus one CR17 angel should be a tough fight but with 5 actions for every one the Angel can make it is a really tough situation. Action economy wins the day.
With the Vale now fully under their control, the PC sat back for the remaining two months and relaxed, crafted some new magic items and enjoyed life as evil dreadlords.
With the coming of spring, the PCs marched their army to Daveryn where they were to assist Sakkarot Fire Axe is the taking of this city. The PCs arrive only to find that the city has already fallen. Fire-Axe takes the PCs into his confidence as tells them his secret: that he is supposed to throw the fight against the Army of Asmodeans. Of course the more pressing confirm is how he is expected to beat the 30 000 strong rmy of the Mitrans that King Markardian has assembled and is even now marching north with. Of course the PCs have no idea at this point.
Fire-Axe does request some assistance from the PCs. When he took the city, the Duke managed to escape. He would really appreciate it if the PCs could locate him and capture him alive. In the meantime they are welcome to loot whatever they can find in the city.
Through the use of divination magic they were able to track the duke to a section of the city but magical means failed to pinpoint the exact dukes location. They searched door to door but failed to turn him up. They did suppress a contingent of guards that were protecting a roadway. The PCs tried to lure him out with a ruse but it failed.
Next session we'll see if the PCs managed to locate the Duke and perhaps explore/loot the city.
The Scarred Witch Doctor (SWD) is an archetype for the Witch class. What is most interesting about this archetype and unique to Pathfinder is that it uses Constitution as its casting stat.
Why does this matter? Casters have a few weak points but the biggest tends to be their Fortitude save. In our current campaign, the PC wizard suspected an enemy wizard was present, picked him out hiding invisibly, and cast Polymorph Other. The wizard rolled ok but it wasn't enough and he turned into a sheep (someone plays too much WoW). With one stroke the battle swung towards the PCs and the sheeped wizard's companions no longer stood a chance. Smart casters (and wizards should be nothing but) will always target what should be the lowest saving throw. Getting petrified, polymorphed, poisoned, etc is not much fun as a player.
So a SWD has little reason to put points into Str, Int or Cha. Bump Dex up to 14 to boost your Reflex save from awful to merely crappy and help you aim your ray spells. Put Wis up to 14 so your Will save is decent, and then focus everything else into Con. You are boosting your hitpoints (you will have tons), your Fort save, the number of bonus spells you get, and your spell DCs. Score!
Since you really only have to focus on Con you can really go all out. Other arcane casters have to put points in non essential stats like Cha or Int but you can focus on the three stats that boost your saving throws.
For an extra boost of awesomeness take a single level of Urban Barbarian with a focus on Con. A couple feats dedicated to Extra Rage and you can rage most battles. I am pretty sure since Urban Barbarian allows you to use mental skills while raging that includes casting. You can easily get your Hex and spell DCs almost to 30 by level 15 which means few things will be able to resist your power.
Now I admit the Witch spell list is not the best. It loses a lot of the wizards versatility but does borrow a few tricks from druids and clerics (Heal!). Most of this is made up for by Hexes. I played a Witch in the Kingmaker campaign and I was both grossly overpowered and nearly useless depending on what type of enemy we were facing. The Sleep hex is nasty and trivialized many encounters especially when it follows an Evil Eye/Misfortune combo. The Witch really is King/Queen of the debuffs. With an insane number of bonus spells from crazy high constitution and a carefully chosen patron I think the Witch can replace the Wizard in many parties.
Knowing that we are likely going to be playing the Mythic campaign Wrath of Righteous in the next year, I've been adding Mythic to my character builds to see how they behave. Most builds do quite well from a mythic power-up but not all (my Smartest Orc in the Universe didn't gain much). Like most arcane casters the SWD becomes even more awesome driving up spell and hex DCs into the stratosphere. Only BBEGs have any chance to make the saving throw.
Here's a semi finished level 15 SWD
Half-Orc Barbarian (Urban Barbarian) 1/Witch (Scarred Witch Doctor) 14
NG Medium humanoid (human, orc)
Init +9; Senses darkvision 60 ft.; Perception +10
AC 15, touch 15, flat-footed 10 (+5 Dex)
hp 259 (1d12+14d6+194)
Fort +24, Ref +17, Will +22; +2 vs. effects that cause pain or have the [pain] descriptor
Defensive Abilities scarshield
Speed 30 ft.
Special Attacks hexes (cackle, evil eye, flight, fortune, ice tomb, misfortune, slumber), rage (31 rounds/day)
Spell-Like Abilities (CL 15th; concentration +15)
At will—feather fall (self only) (DC 11)
14 minutes/day—fly (self only)
1/day—levitate (self only)
Witch (Scarred Witch Doctor) Spells Prepared (CL 15th; concentration +27):
0 (at will)—detect magic, light, putrefy food and drink (DC 22), read magic
Str 10, Dex 20, Con 35, Int 10, Wis 20, Cha 10
Base Atk +8; CMB +8; CMD 23
Feats Extra Rage, Extra Rage, Extra Rage, Improved Initiative, Iron Will, Lightning Reflexes, Raging Vitality, Spell Penetration
Traits magical knack
Skills Heal +7, Intimidate +4, Perception +10, Spellcraft +18, Swim +4, Use Magic Device +18; Racial Modifiers +2 Intimidate
Languages Common, Orc
SQ controlled rage, controlled rage: constitution, controlled rage: dexterity, crowd control, fetish mask, hex scar, orc blood, patron spells (time), weapon familiarity, tireless rage
Other Gear belt of physical might (dex & con +6), cloak of resistance +5, headband of inspired wisdom +6, 89,000 gp
Cackle (Su) As a move action, extend the duration of other hexes by 1 rd.
Controlled Rage (Ex) May gain lesser bonus split as desired, but without normal drawbacks.
Crowd Control (Ex) If 2+ foes adjacent, +1 to hit & AC. Unslowed by crowds & bonus to intimidate.
Darkvision (60 feet) You can see in the dark (black and white vision only).
Evil Eye -4 (15 round(s)) (DC 29) (Su) Foe in 30 ft takes penalty to your choice of AC, attacks, saves, ability or skill checks (Will part).
Fetish Mask (Su) +2 to Heal, Intimidate & save vs pain while wearing the mask. Can enchant the mask
Fortune (2 round(s)) (Su) Ally in 30 ft can roll 2d20 for an attack, save, ability, or skill check (and take higher) once/rd.
Hex Scar You must scar your flesh for every hex you learn.
Ice Tomb (DC 29) (Su) A storm of ice and freezing wind envelops the creature, which takes 3d8 points of cold damage (Fortitude half). If the target fails its save, it is paralyzed and unconscious but does not need to eat or breathe while the ice lasts. The ice has 20 hit
Magical Knack (Witch [Scarred Witch Doctor]) +2 CL for a specific class, to a max of your HD.
Misfortune (2 rds) (DC 29) (Su) Foe in 30 ft must take the lower of 2d20 for rolls (Will neg).
Orc Blood Half-orcs count as both humans and orcs for any effect related to race.
Rage (31 rounds/day) (Ex) -2 Str, -2 Con, +2 to Will saves, -2 to AC when enraged.
Raging Vitality +2 CON while raging, Rage does not end if you become unconscious.
Scarshield +7 (14 minutes/day) (Su) +1/2 level to AC for a number of minutes per day equal to your level.
Slumber (14 rds) (DC 29) (Su) Foe in 30 ft falls asleep for duration, or until damaged or roused by ally (Will neg).
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The playtest version of the Slayer came out late last year and the final version is coming this summer. The Slayer is supposed to be a hybrid class of a Ranger and a Rogue and borrows many of the best features from both.
Now I will do my best from going into why I don't like the Rogue class but many, many people like the idea of a rogue so if there was another class out there that do the same sorts of things but only better then the world will be a happier place for all.
Few classes can do melee combat well. In later levels there are lots of heavy hitters and a good melee combatant needs some way to take (or avoid) the hits. There is no perfect solution but as long as you have your basses covered in at least one area you should be ok.
The first is AC. Have a high enough armor class and you are almost unhittable. The PC Sergent Fenton in my current campaign is a good example of this. Most sessions go by without him getting hit at all. Even his touch AC is really good.
The second is DR. It doesn't matter if you get hit with every swing if they have to subtract 10 or 15 points of damage from each blow.
The third is avoidance. There are a few options here. You can use Mirror Image, Displacement, if available pre-nerf Crane Wing, or Duelist's Parry.
Since the Slayer (like the Rogue and Ranger) can't really achieve any of these three objective ( a dex based sword and board Ranger might be able to pull off AC), they are best suited for ranged combat.
So how good are Slayers at range combat? Let's look at their derivative classes to get a starting point. The rogue is pretty bad. Sure she can can do some serious damage when she has surprise but once she's seen those 1d6+5 arrows are a joke. The ranger does much better. In fact, I would argue its the rangers most effective style. In Pathfinder archers are crazy powerful since they can just stand at the back and launch volley after volley of death. It is a bit boring to play but hugely effective.
The good news here is that the Slayer is perhaps an even better archer than a Ranger. The Slayer will get sneak attack on each arrow during surprise but remains very effective even without it. The ranger gets a few spells that can help out but in any case they are quite comparable.
In a campaign where all you face are Drow, the Ranger is much better since your favored enemy is obvious. Any other time the slayer is really good since you just spend a standard/move/swift action studying your foes and you instantly get a bonus equal to half of the rangers (Favored Target). No limits per day, no limits on enemy type.
What else makes the Slayer awesome? You still get to throw lots of sneak attack dice. Not as many as a rogue but its still good. The better part is that you don't do trivial damage without it.
You get slayer talents, which are like Rogue talents but better. You get to cherry pick most of the best talents form the Rogue and Ninja list and get a few awesome ones of your own. You can pick Trapfinding making you the ultimate combat rogue. You can take Ranger Weapon Styles as talents. You can get Evasion as a Talent. You get full BAB so you can hit things. Favored Target really makes sure you hit things. You still get a decent number of skills and you should have decent hit points.
What sucks about the Slayer? They still have crappy saves with no easy way to fix that. They still get beat hard in melee combat but do have a few more hit points so its not quite as bad as a Rogue.
Overall I really like the Slayer class (not crazy about the name). It is a great Rogue replacement that is effective in combat without trying too hard. Bards still make better skill monkeys but not everyone likes classes with spells. Just tell your adventuring buddies that you are a rogue, do rogue stuff but be awesome at combat as a Slayer.
Let's hope the final version of the class doesn't get nerfed.
So in this play session the PCs fully explored the Cathedral. They poked at the wall of fire and decided it was best to leave it alone for now as they could not find a way past it. They search the rooms on the main floor but really only found a couple things of interest. The first was in the Ghaele's room they fount last time. It was a letter from Brigit of the Bijidine warning that there were Asdomeans at work.
The second item was the Grand-Abbot's journal. It basically said that Ara Mathra had called up a wall of divine flame that was impassable to all but a saint. He just had to wait out the bad guys until help arrives and then he can relight the two other flames that the PCs have extinguished. Meanwhile the Grand-Abbot was going to pray to Mitra for an army of ghosts to cleanse the Vale of evil (kinda like LotR).
Our villains wandered into the lower level of the Cathedral to find that most of the rooms were filled with old bones - former priests of the order. Disturbing them drew the attention of three ghost paladins. The cleric came up with a clever way of rendering the ghosts impotent while the rest of the party killed them.
Aside from the ghost fights most of the basement was solving puzzles and exploring. The could hear chanting going on but could not determine the source. They slaughtered a few acolytes that were waiting in a room and soon discovered a series of trials. The PCs managed to blunder through most of them and not get killed and eventually tracked down the Grand-Abbot who it turns out was responsible for the chanting.
He was knocked out and was then forced to drink a Philter of Love. The PCs managed to figure out most of the riddle and were able to access the Mitrans super vault, recovering part of an evil artifact sword, a Vampire Chalice, and a Mirror holding two bone devils plus lots of loot. They also discovered the remains of Saint Maccarius.
It was a good session for loot uncovering not one, but two well stocked vaults. With the cathedral almost fully pacified, the only tasks remaining are to lower the wall of divine fire and then defeat Ara Mathra.
Barring really poor rolling on my part, the second task is not going to be easy.
Some time ago the Beast was my PC for the Serpent's Skull adventure path. He was a stupid, stinky killing machine so they party kept him around. After all when you are an adventurer having an effective killer on your side is always a benefit.
Alas, in one encounter with a Hag he failed two consecutive will saves and was slain. He was replaced with my attempt at a combat rogue (who proved to be disappointing from a combat perspective) and I've never played "the Beast" again. He only made it to level 3 so I never really got a good fell for the build and I'd love to give it another try.
He joined an NPC adventuring party that went against the PCs in Book 2 of Way of the Wicked. He traded blow for blow with Gorbatch the Bloodrager but apparently Displacement is greater than a few points of Damage Resistance since Gorbatch proved to be the winner of that contest.
The build is constantly being tweaked as I look at adding in new things or subbing out stuff I'm no longer crazy about. The original Beast was very Min/Maxed with two big dump stats and I didn't really like that. Playing as a Human with Dual Talent means that I could boost Str and Con and not dump Int and Cha into the ground. The new version was slightly less effective in combat but a bit more well rounded PC which seemed a fair trade.
The basics of the Beast are: Invulnerable Rager archetype - grants DR = half your level and a bit of Fire or Cold resistance. The beast Totem line of Rage powers for Pounce and a natural armor bonus. Superstition for crazy high saving throws, Witch Hunter for bonus damage and and Spell Sunder because depending how you read it, you can suppress any spell effect. Reckless Abandon to counter act your Power attack penalties. Oh course the cherry on the cake is the Come and Get Me rage power you can take at level 12.
The latest thing that I've been looking at are the two Stalwart feats. The best way to cover the Feat prerequisites is to take one level of the Unbreakable Fighter archetype. The Stalwart feats change your Dodge bonus when fighting defensively or using Combat Expertise into DR that stacks with regular barbarian DR. Their seem to be two ways to go about doing this.
The first is Combat Expertise. It has the major downside or giving you an ugly penalty to attack which gets bigger as you level even though you maxed out your DR at 10 with Improved Stalwart. Combat Expertise has a prerequisite of an Int score of 13+ - which would normally be a dump stat.
Option two is fighting defensively. Getting a big enough dodge bonus to make this worth while means maxing out acrobatics and finding some other source like the pre-nerf Crane style feats. Pre-nerf Crane style is pure awesome sauce but comes with some complications. It has some steep feat prerequisites on a build that is already pretty tight on feats. So of course the best way to get around this to take two levels of Monk (Master of Many Styles archetype). What? We have conflicting alignment problems? Well I guess that's not going to work.
So there you go. You can go with the less optimal Combat expertise, try to find some way to get the 5 extra feats required to get Crane style (this might be viable in a Mythic game), or do some weird shenanigans to get levels in both Monk and Barbarian. Even this isn't ideal though since that's three non Barbarian levels which is a noticeable delay on the nice Rage powers. That and Crane Style limits you to a one handed weapon (although it can still be gripped with two hands on your turn).
So is Stalwart worth all of the effort? Is stacking DR 10/- really worth the trouble? At this point I'm still on the fence. DR 20/- at level 20 would be pretty great and the barbarian isn't really hurting in the "To Hit" so I'm inclined to say "yes", I'd just like a cleaner way to pull it off.
A few other things are worthy of special mention. In a game where you can really customize your gear there are two weapon enhancements that are no-brainers for a barbarian. Furious is the first. For the cost of +1 it adds +2 to your weapon when you are raging (which is pretty much always). Courageous is the second. This one is a bit more complicated. It adds half of the enhancement bonus of your weapon to ALL of your current Morale bonuses. Wait a minute, you say. The barbarian has tons of morale bonuses. The Strength and Constitution bonuses are both Morale. Will save bonus? Morale. The Superstition bonus is Morale. Got Heroism? Morale. Good Hope is a Morale bonus too. A Courageous Furious +5 weapon adds +3 to all of the bonuses. That's a lot!
The Beast is a walking mass of melee destruction. Easy to hit but with high DR and a metric crapton of HP it doesn't matter so much although you may need a cleric on standby to clean up after any really long battles. Expect to get left behind when the wizard does an emergency evacuation due to you resisting the spell because of superstition. The Beast will have to be strategic about turning off Rage.
I don't think I have ever seen anyone at our gaming table play a druid. I kinda remember a druid way back in 3.5's Age of Worms but we have not had any since the switch to Pathfinder.
I can think of several reasons this may be the case. The first one is pretty straight forward. Most game session we have 4-6 players present and its a struggle to keep everyone's turn moving as quickly as possible. Any class rolling lots of dice, having many variable modifiers to rolls, and/or pets just seems to take forever. Its fairly common to hear the old question: "Did I get skipped?" and most of the time the answer is no and we just haven't made it back around yet. A straight up caster druid turn should move along pretty quickly but other druid builds break lots of the guidelines. You have lots of different wildshape bonuses and buffs to consider, you have to move around your summoned monsters as well as your animal companion. Nobody likes a turn hog.
This leads into the next difficulty with druids. Some classes are simpler to play than others. With a little bit of guidance any newb can make and play effectively a fighter. Rogues and Monks take a great deal of system mastery to make a decent character but are pretty easy to play. Primary casters just have to know their spell list inside and out. The druid is so complicated. They have 9 levels of spells they need to know and understand their application. They have Wildshape and need to know what options are available (and there are so many). They can convert spells into Summon Nature's Ally. What creatures are on those lists and what are their strengths and weaknesses? And lastly they may have an animal companion that they have to know and understand. That is a lot of class features that are very complicated! Not even the summoner has so many options.
As I've been playing around with different character builds to throw at the evil PCs in Way of the Wicked, I have come to see the power of the druid. I already have an Inquisitor, Barbarian, Cleric PC that I'd love to play, I have now added Druid to the list. Wildshape is just so awesome. Scout the enemy stronghold as a cat. Sit on a branch as a bird and blast your enemies with lightning. Become a Lake Octopus with 8 attacks and 20' reach. Earthglide as an Earth elemental. So many options!