Iconic Design: Holy Guns, Batman!

Welcome to Guidance, Private Sanctuary’s source for tips and techniques for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, written by Everyman Gamer Alexander Augunas. Today, we’re going to be talking about the mathematics behind the Challenge Rating system.

I’ve been a long-time fan of Know Direction and on occasion, you can hear the two of them talking about my Youtube Comments to their videoes going as far back as February. For example, you can hear them talking about my opinions on the Crane Wing nerf in Episode 77 during the News Banter, long before I wrote this blog.)

As a matter of fact, let’s talk about Episode 77. In this episode, Ryan and Perram are asked a question about a specific paladin archetype: the holy gun from Ultimate Combat. Perram quickly dismisses this archetype for being a poor choice, but that’s not at all the opinion I have of it. At a glance, I think that it is actually a decent option. So, how can we determine if this is a build worth making? By building one for ourselves and finding out, of course!

Build Concept

This section summarizes the build and its component options.

  • Holy Gun: The point of this article is to optimize the holy gun archetype. This is a brainless choice.
  • Mysterious Stranger: This is another obvious choice; it is an archetype that trades the gunslinger’s focus on Wisdom for Charisma. We’ll take it, but we won’t be taking much of this.

Early Levels (1–7)

  • Classes: Gunslinger (mysterious stranger) 1/Paladin (holy gun) 6
  • Feats: Rapid Reload: pistol (1st), Extra Grit (Bonus Feat), Gunsmithing (Bonus Feat), Point-Blank Shot (3rd), Deadly Aim (5th), Rapid Shot (7th)
  • Abilities: Auras (Courage, Good), Channel Positive Energy (3d6/2; Variant Channel: Battle); Deeds (deadeye, focused aim, gunslinger’s dodge, smiting shot), Grit (Cha + 2), Divine Bond, Divine Grace, Divine Health, Gunsmith, Have Gun, Lay on Hands (Cha +3/Day; 3d6), Mercy (2),
  • Recommended 1st Level Paladin Spells: bless weapon, divine favor, longshot

All right, let’s get get this ball rolling. So for this build, I’m not assuming that you belong to a particular race. Why? Because race isn’t extremely important, that’s why! Human will be an excellent choice because you won’t be getting many feats with this build, but because we’re going to be making such heavy use of Dexterity and Charisma, I’d probably go with kitsune just because I love that race! Catfolk also aren’t a bad choice here as they both have a Dexterity and Charisma bonus too, but I also think that the kitsune’s Strength penalty hurts this build less than the Catfolk’s Wisdom penalty. But again, this is just my preference. You’ll want to invest your ability score advancements into either Dexterity or Charisma as you deem appropriate; Charisma is much more of a powerhouse score in this build than Dexterity, but Dexterity ensures that you hit and boosts the character’s worst saving throw: Reflex.

Okay, let’s get one thing out of the way: roughly 75% of gamers do not know how the holy gun’s smiting shot works. Most players assume that smiting shot is identical to smite evil except that it requires a standard action to use and costs one grit to perform. In actuality, a holy gun adds her paladin level (or double her level if her target is an evil outsider, evil dragon, or an undead) plus her Charisma modifier on damage rolls: there is no bonuses on attack rolls to be found in smiting shot. At low levels, when you are only going to get one attack per smite anyway, this bonus is huge and it isn’t until 6th level, when the paladin receives her second attack, that a standard ability’s smite evil starts to pull away from the holy gun.

However, the holy gun has another huge benefit over the paladin: she can replenish her smites per day. How, you ask? A character with a grit pool replenishes one point from her pool whenever she confirms a critical hit or whenever she reduces an opponent to 0 or fewer hit points. With proper planning and a little luck, a holy gun can effectively mow down lower hit point foes all day because if she slays an opponent with her smiting shot, she gets the grit point back! Even if she ultimately runs dry, a critical hit or downing a foe restores a grit point to her pool. A standard paladin cannot make these claims; the only archetype in the game that grants additional uses of smite evil is the oathbound paladin’s oath of vengeance. No magic items, no feats, nothing else can do it, so the fact that a holy gun can smite all day with some planning is awesome.

There are a couple reasons I highly recommend multiclassing into mysterious stranger for this build, and some of them don’t pay off until the mid levels. Taking a level of gunslinger during this level range does have a few serious benefits, the first of which is Extra Grit. If a holy gun paladin gains gunslinger levels, she trades her Amateur Gunslinger feat for Extra Grit, meaning that the paladin now has a grit pool equal to 2 + her Charisma modifier. That’s two more smiting shots per day! Furthermore, the paladin gets a second discounted gun she can tinker but most importantly, she gains the mysterious stranger’s focused aim deed. At the cost of a swift action and one grit point, a mysterious stranger can add her Charisma bonus to all damage rolls she makes with firearms during the turn. While already amazing on its own because it scales independently of gunslinger levels, this ability is made even better because the holy gun can combine focused aim and smiting shot together, spending 2 grit points to add double her Charisma modifier and her paladin level on her firearm’s damage roll. This more than makes up for the one paladin level you lose gaining this stellar ability.

Let’s look at a 7th level holy gun’s smiting shot damage vs. a standard paladin’s smite evil damage for comparison. For this build, we’ll assume both paladins are using pistols so we can isolate the Smite Evil vs. Smiting Shot comparision. We’re not going to assume magic items, but we will assume divine bond. And even though I said on Wednesday that it is better to look at Practical Damage than simply Theoretical Damage, we’re only going to look at Theoretical Damage for this exercise (aka, we’re assuming that all attack rolls hit). The way firearms are designed, they practically always hit so it isn’t worth our time to investigate miss chances.

  • Paladin: 2d8+2 plus Deadly Aim (+4) plus smite evil (+14) plus Point-Blank Shot (+2) = Average 29 Damage per Smite Evil
  • Holy Gun: 1d8+1 plus Deadly Aim (+4) plus Point-Blank Shot (+1) plus smiting shot deed (+10) plus focused aim (+3) = Average 23 Damage per Smiting Shot

As you can see, the paladin does pull ahead slightly of the holy gun; this happens at 6th level, when the paladin is able to make two attacks with his firearms. The holy gun’s only advantage is that she still has a move action to do what she wishes with.

Mid Levels (8 –14)

  • Classes: Gunslinger (mysterious stranger) 1/Paladin (holy gun) 13
  • Feats: Rapid Reload (1st), Extra Grit (Bonus Feat), Gunsmithing (Bonus Feat), Point-Blank Shot (3rd), Deadly Aim (5th), Rapid Shot (7th), Quick Channel (9th level), Selective Channeling (11th), Precise Shot (13th)
  • Abilities: Auras (Courage, Good, Resolve), Channel Positive Energy (7d6/2; Variant Channel: Battle); Deeds (dead shot, deadeye, focused aim, gunslinger’s dodge, pistol whip, smiting shot, startling shot, targeting, utility shot), Grit (2(Cha) + 2), Divine Bond, Divine Grace, Divine Health, Gunsmith, Have Gun, Holy Grit, Lay on Hands (Cha +3/Day; 3d6), Mercy (4),
  • Recommended 2nd Level Paladin Spells: litany of righteousness, weapon of awe
  • Recommended 1st Level Paladin Spells: bless weapon, divine favor, longshot

Alex House Rule: At 11th level, a standard paladin receives aura of justice. As written, this aura does not function for the holy gun archetype because the holy gun does not possess smite evil. That said, the holy gun does receive the holy grit class feature at 11th level but it does not clarify which class feature (if any) it replaces. This guide is written with the assumption that holy grit was intended to replace aura of justice.

While the holy gun was doing well in the early levels, the standard paladin definitely started gaining the potential to out-scale it because it can make multiple attacks per round under its smite evil effect. Let’s see if the mid levels are any better to the holy gun.

In midlevels the holy gun gains some of her most powerful tricks. By 14th level, the reason you took your level in gunslinger becomes obvious; you get holy grit, which grants the paladin a bonus number of grit points equal to her Charisma modifier if she is a multiclass gunslinger. A paladin with a Charisma of at least 20 (a +5 bonus) is going to have 12 grit points at 12th level with no real drawbacks. Once the holy gun gains Quick Channel, the reason I advised the selection of the channel battle variant becomes clearer; when she uses channel battle, the holy gun grants herself and her allies a channel bonus on damage rolls and critical confirmation rolls equal to the number of channel dice she possesses. By 14th level, this will be a +7 bonus, which is a huge buff. And most importantly, Quick Channel makes channel energy a move action, so the holy gun can load her gun (a free action), channel battle (a move action), and make a smiting shot (a standard action) while still finding time to use focused aim (a swift action). Assuming a +3 weapon and a Charisma of +5 by this stage of the game:

  • Paladin: 3d8+9 plus Deadly Aim (+24) plus Point-Blank Shot (+3) plus smite evil (+42) = Average 91.5 damage
  • Holy Gun: 1d8+3 plus Deadly Aim (+8) plus Point-Blank Shot (+1) plus smiting shot deed (+18) plus focused aim deed (+5) plus channel battle (+3) = Average 42.5 damage

So now we can really start to see the iterative attacks mechanic start to outpace the holy gun in terms of damage. Although it is impressive that the Holy Gun is able to hit just shy of half of the standard paladin’s damage potential with a single attack, our build assumes that you are giving up that free move action that you could normally lord over the standard paladin using channel battle. Buffing your allies is cool and all, but this is a little bit pathetic when compared to the standard paladin’s smite and the source of the problem is the hard one-attack limit of smiting shot.

Endgame (15+)

  • Classes: Gunslinger (mysterious stranger) 1/Paladin (holy gun) 19
  • Feats: Rapid Reload (1st), Extra Grit (Bonus Feat), Gunsmithing (Bonus Feat), Point-Blank Shot (3rd), Deadly Aim (5th), Rapid Shot (7th), Quick Channel (9th level), Selective Channeling (11th), Precise Shot (13th), Improved Critical (15th) , Improved Precise Shot (17th), Extra Lay on Hands (19th)
  • Abilities: Auras (Courage, Faith, Good, Resolve, Righteousness), Channel Positive Energy (10d6/2; Variant Channel: Battle); Deeds (clipping shot, dead shot, deadeye, expert loading, evasice, focused aim, gunslinger’s dodge, lightning reload, menacing shot, pistol whip, slinger’s luck, smiting shot, startling shot, targeting, utility shot), Grit (2(Cha) + 2), Divine Bond, Divine Grace, Divine Health, Gunsmith, Have Gun, Holy Grit, Lay on Hands (Cha +5/Day; 9d6), Mercy (6),
  • Recommended 3rd Level Paladin Spells and Above: There’s really nothing specific that I can recommend for you hear. Pick what you like.
  • Recommended 2nd Level Paladin Spells: litany of righteousness, weapon of awe
  • Recommended 1st Level Paladin Spells: bless weapon, divine favor, longshot

Okay, here we are at the endgame. Let’s see how the holy gun ends its game.

So here we are at the end game for this character. How did it hold up? Well, in addition to get all of the cool defenses of the paladin, this holy gun build gets evasion, uncanny dodge, and improved uncanny dodge as its ‘capstone ability’ thanks to the holy grit class feature. But other then those neat tricks much is increasing this character’s damage. Let’s do another comparison using a +5 weapon and an ability modifier of +6.

  • Paladin: 4d8+20 plus Deadly Aim (+48) plus Point-Blank Shot (+4) plus smite evil (+80) = Average 170 damage.
  • Holy Gun: 1d8+5 plus Deadly Aim (+12) plus Point-Blank Shot (+1) plus smiting shot deed (+25) plus focused aim deed (+6) plus channel battle (+5) = Average 58 damage per smiting shot

Ouch. That’s actually pretty sad, really. You’re looking this archetype dealing just shy of 3x less damage than its standard archetype. That’s just said, and the reason is the paladin’s iterative attack mechanic. As a matter of fact, let’s compare the Holy Gun’s smiting shot damage to a standard full attack with the same character.

  • Holy Gun (Full Attack): 4d8+20 plus Deadly Aim (+48) plus Point-Blank Shot (+4) plus focused aim deed (+24) = Average 114 damage

So you can effectively double your damage by electing to NOT use smiting shot. Huh. Weird. This means that the only advantage to smiting shot is its ability to A) front-load a ton of damage into a single attack and B) ignore all types of damage resistance.

Other Notes

So now you might be wondering: is the holy gun playable? Surprisingly, the answer is yes; however in terms of raw damage the smiting shot deed simply isn’t useful once you gain the ability to make two attacks per turn; 7th level kills this deed. In the end, I don’t think Perram was correct in saying that this archetype is trash; it isn’t, especially when combined with that single level of gunslinger. However, I think the problem with this archetype is that it takes the iconic paladin class feature and guts it so miserably that it doesn’t even resemble itself. If smiting shot deed was a swift action that applied to all attacks the paladin made until the end of his turn, it would be worth using. But as written, it just can’t keep up with a full attack action.

Now, I don’t want to leave my readers on this low-note, so I’ll offer you one final solace: fixing the holy gun would not require a complete rewrite of the archetype of this ability. Here, I’ll even fix it for you in one fell swoop:

Smiting Shot Mastery (Combat, Grit)

You are able to land devastating strikes upon wicked foes using grit and righteous fury.

Prerequisites: dead shot deed, smiting shot deed, paladin level 11th

Benefit: When you use the dead shot deed, you may spend 1 additional grit point in order to add your Charisma bonus and your paladin level to the damage of the firearm attack. If the target of the attack is an outsider with the evil subtype, an evil-aligned dragon, or an undead creature, the bonus to damage increases to your Charisma plus 2 points per paladin level you possess. Regardless of the target, your dead shot automatically bypasses any DR the creature might have. This damage is not multiplied by dead shot deed.

This feat makes dead shot, which is earned by a holy gun at 11th level, a powerful attacking option. It essentially allows the paladin to full attack and make a smiting shot. Because grit can be recovered, I chose to not allow this bonus damage to be multiplied by the number of successful hits the paladin makes while using dead shot, but even without that this is a strong feat that costs a good bit of the holy gun’s resources (1 grit for dead shot, 1 grit for this feat) to use. In the end, a full attack with a smiting dead shot with 20 levels in this build can expect to see about 160 damage per round, which is very respectable; especially considering that gunmen hardly ever miss.

And there you have it; a functioning (if somewhat underwhelming) build for the holy gun. What do you think? Would you play the holy gun archetype despite the severe beating its smite evil ability takes, or would you rather play a standard paladin with a gun? Have you ever played the holy gun before? Would you consider it after reading this guide? Leave your answers and comments below!

Alexander “Alex” Augunas has been playing roleplaying games since 2007, which isn’t nearly as long as 90% of his colleagues. Alexander is an active freelancer for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and is best known as the author of the Pact Magic Unbound series by Radiance House. Alex is the owner of Everyman Gaming, LLC and is often stylized as the Everyman Gamer in honor of Guidance’s original home. Alex’s favorite color is blue, his favorite Pathfinder Race/Class combination is kitsune gunslinger, and his favorite pastime is staring creepily at Ryan Costello Jr. when he thinks he isn’t being watched.

Alex Augunas

Alexander "Alex" Augunas is an author and behavioral health worker living outside of Philadelphia in the United States. He has contributed to gaming products published by Paizo, Inc, Kobold Press, Legendary Games, Raging Swan Press, Rogue Genius Games, and Steve Jackson Games, as well as the owner and publisher of Everybody Games (formerly Everyman Gaming). At the Know Direction Network, he is the author of Guidance and a co-host on Know Direction: Beyond. You can see Alex's exploits at http://www.everybodygames.net, or support him personally on Patreon at http://www.patreon.com/eversagarpg.

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