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 discussing whether or not the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game is “broken.”
I’ve been asked several times about this topic, so I decided to give an official, Gibbering Mouth response for all of you to enjoy (or to hate and loathe me for, whatever floats your boat).
Preface: Advanced Class Guide
Last month Paizo’s latest hardcover rules book, the Advanced Class Guide, was released. This product was unarguably one of Paizo’s most successful GenCon launches ever, as they sold out of their entire stock of the book (as well as their stock of the new Technology Guide and Part 1 of the Iron Gods Adventure Path) well before their Saturday seminar on “the Future of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.” Two days, probably a good couple thousand books sold. What’s more, there was a THREE HOUR LINE to get into the Paizo booth, which is also pretty impressive. Great work, Paizoians!
Of course, whenever a player-focused hardcover comes out there are people who cry foul. I’ve been part of the Pathfinder Community since the Advanced Player’s Guide (2010 or so) and I remember people complaining about new PC power options since Ultimate Magic, but I’m sure the sentiments existed back in the APG’s early days too. People love to complain about things, after all. It is a universal constant that you could set your clock behind.
In recent releases, however, one of the common glittering generalities that I’ve heard slung around is that Pathfinder is “broken,” implying that it needs to be utterly scrapped for a second, shinier edition of Pathfinder. Before I give my opinion on whether or not I think Pathfinder is “broken,” however, we need to talk about what “broken” means in the context of roleplaying games, because I’m not sure if people really understand the meaning of the generality that they’re slinging about.
When is Something “Broken?”
The term “broken” first entered gamer lingo through Magic: the Gathering. It was originally used in reference to a suit of high efficiency cards collectively called “The Power Cards.” This list includes cards like the legendary Black Lotus card, Time Walk, and Ancestral Recall. These cards were of the sort that they were included in virtually any deck ever made because their power level was so earth-shatteringly powerful that they allowed tournament-level players to effectively win games before their opponents ever drew their first card. Tournaments-level players would show each other their hands and like some perverse Edward/Alice psychic chess match, the tournament-level players would decide who would win the game, reshuffle their decks, and start round two.
This style of play wasn’t fun for anyone. Their power level was so great that if the game were a series of scales with one player on each side, these cards literally tipped over the scales and broke them in such a way that there was no game, there was no delicate balance swinging back and forth as the game raged on. The game was over before it even started. This is where the term, “broken” comes from. It refers to an aspect of a game that is so over-the-top unbalancing that either you use this option or you lose. It utterly destroys the game that is being played and ruins all fun for everyone.
Can You “Break” Pathfinder?
Going back to our original question, “Is the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game broken?” This is both a “yes” and a “no.” The game itself isn’t broken. The game isn’t fundamentally flawed in a way that the game can’t be played, no matter how powerful your options are. The reason that Pathfinder can’t truly be “broken” is that Pathfinder isn’t designed to be competitive affair. If a competition is going on, it is designed to be players versus GMs (and we talked about how this is a bad idea in my GMing and Liking It article). And the simple truth is that you CAN’T complete with the GM, because the GM has all of the fictional resource she desires at her disposal. She doesn’t have to play by player rulers; there’s even a rule called GM fiat that specifically states that she doesn’t have to.
That said, specific options within Pathfinder could be broken. A secondary definition for the word “broken” is something that is so good in a particular context that it eclipses whatever is in second place. Using this definition, options in Pathfinder can certainly outshine one another (and have in some cases), but generally speaking those options never grow so big that they stop the game from functioning as intended. The only exception I might acknowledge is Mythic Adventures, but that product is basically designed to “break” the rules anyway, so I’m not sure if I should be counted.
ACG and Broken-ness
When the term “broken” gets thrown around in regards to the ACG classes, it usually falls into one of three categories:
- X class invalidates Y class.
- Slashing Grace / Dex to Damage in general
- Divine Protection
Let’s look over some of these topics quickly.
X Invalidates Y
This is the lesser of the three arguments and it typically refers to one of three class cases. The slayer invalidates the rogue, the investigator invalidates the rogue, and the sacred fist (warpriest) invalidates the monk. Let’s look at those three examples.
- Slayer/Rogue: Of the three, I think that this “invalidation” is the weakest. The slayer certainly beats out the rogue in terms of his damage done, but that’s mostly by design. The slayer is a full base attack bonus class that gains a fairly powerful attack and damage bonus against whatever it wants. Of course it is going to be a fairly powerful class in terms of the amount of damage it deals. But looking at the slayer, we can see that it doesn’t truly axe off the rogue. The slayer gains less skill points than the rogue, has a fraction of its talents (and not many of its own unique options), and unlike other classes that come closer to beating the rogue at its own game, the slayer doesn’t have any mechanics by which it can exceed the rogue’s skill bonus. Finally, the rogue hits much harder than the slayer because of its superior number of sneak attack dice. (Although the slayer may hit harder on a critical hit since favored target is multiplied while sneak attack is not. That remains to be seen, for now.) So I wouldn’t call this an “invalidation.”
- Investigator / Rogue: This is another close one. The investigator’s reliance on Intelligence means that it will, likely, beat out the rogue in terms of skill point bulk. Additionally, inspiration and studied combat are very powerful abilities and having access to alchemical extracts only makes this class even more powerful. It has much better skill utility than the rogue and has extracts that allow it to be better at self-buffing and performing off-combat roles. It is a little confusing as to whether this class can take the Brew Potion feat, though, which does restrict how much benefit an investigator can bring to a party. Last, but not least, while an investigator can certainly hit more often thanks to studied combat, her one-attack only on studied strike means that her damage is going to be less in a given round than a rogue’s will. That said, picking a rogue over an investigator because of its damage potential may not be a very wise decision.
- Warpriest / Monk: There’s an archetype for the warpriest called the sacred fist. Basically, the warpriest trades its fighter parent for a monk parent and gains limited ki pools, a monk’s unarmed strike progression, and other, similar tricks. This archetype basically gains all of the monk abilities you wanted, keeps the 6th-level spellcasting, and drops abilities that you didn’t care about all that much. It is an interesting choice because it is quite possible that the warpriest can hit full base attack bonus using flurry of blows with this archetype, which was specifically removed from it in the aftermath of the playtesting. So, what do I think on this one? As it currently stands, this archetype beats out the monk. Handedly. The only reason not to pick this class over a true monk is because you don’t want to worship a deity, and even that isn’t a very strong reason to choose a monk over a warpriest.
Now, one thing you’ll note is that all of the classes mentioned here today are classes that are being reworked on in Pathfinder Unchained. From what I’ve heard from our insiders at the Future of the Pathfinder RPG seminar, it sounds like most of the changes that will happen in Pathfinder Unchained will make most of these comparisons invalid. The rogue is getting a way to provide her with a bonus on attack rolls, plus the “modify my sneak attack” mechanic is being divorced from rogue talents and added in baseline, sort of like an antipaladin’s cruelties, but on successful sneak attacks. Likewise, the monk will be getting a full base attack bonus baseline, divorcing that bonus from flurry of blows, as well as a new ki power mechanic that sounds an awful lot like merging the qinggong monk into the standard monk. In this case, the change to flurry of blows would remove the warpriest’s improved base attack bonus while flurrying and give the monk something useful that he has over the warpriest (shiny, new ki powers). In short, I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that the rogue and the monk are currently being overshadowed, I think its sort of an “Unchained will fix it” mindset because the monk and rogue are currently the classes that you DON’T want to benchmark your class design by.
Slashing Grace / Dex to Damage
I knew I was going to have to talk about this one sooner or later. So, basically, there’s this big controversy in-community about whether or not it is overpowered to allow finesse characters to use their Dexterity bonus on damage rolls in place of their strength. There are arguments (not discussions, arguments) on both sides about whether or not the penalties for dumping strength can be easily mitigated by gold or the like or about how finesse characters will take over the world if they’re allowed to exist.
Now, this argument didn’t really “exist” in the same capacity as it burst into after Mythic Adventures. Before Mythic Adventures, Dex to damage was restricted to the campaign setting books: Inner Sea World Guide (the Dervish Dance feat) and the Pathfinder Society Primer (the agile weapon property). The general consensus seemed to be, “I can ban anything that isn’t core from my games.” This is basically Pathfinder’s largest sacred cow, so naturally many people who were against Dex to Damage but thought they could ignore it because it wasn’t core were outraged when Mythic Adventures was published. In Mythic Adventures, there is a feat called Weapon Finesse (Mythic) that allows you to completely replace your Strength with your Dexterity on attack and damage rolls with finesse weapons. Lots of outcry over that, but it simmered down. I guess people realized that they could simply restrict themselves to non-mythic gameplay and still avoid Dex to Damage.
And then comes Slashing Grace!
Slashing Grace has a very interesting history of development. It first appeared in the ACG playtest’s second rendition, where it was designed as a response to players who complained that you couldn’t use the cutlass with the swashbuckler’s finesse class ability, which allows the swashbuckler to use her Dexterity modifier instead of her attack modifier on attack rolls with all types of light or one-handed piercing weapons, even if they weren’t normally eligible for Weapon Finesse. Since pirates (who predominately wield cutlasses) are iconic swashbucklers (the word swashbuckler is practically synonymous with pirate), it made sense to have an option in the game that allowed swashbucklers easy access to this weapon type. Slashing Grace allowed characters with Weapon Finesse to treat all one-handed slashing weapons as one-handed piercing weapons for all effects that required such weapons, including swashbuckler and duelist class features.
When the Advanced Class Guide was in final production, however, the design team reportedly felt that Slashing Grace was too weak. Knowing that their audience wanted a Dex to damage ability for the core line (it was the number one request from the playtest), they decided to add on the ability to use one’s Dexterity modifier in place of Strength with all one-handed slashing weapons to Slashing Grace in order to make it more attractive. To prevent the feat from encroaching on Weapon Finesse (Mythic), the Weapon Focus requirement was added to the weapon. So when the Advanced Class Guide was published, the fans reacted horribly.
- Those passionate about NOT allowing Dex to Damage in the Core Line were furious that the option now existed.
- Those passionate about allowing Dex to Damage in the Core Line were furious that Dex to Damage was only allowed with weapons that the characters (even the swashbuckler) couldn’t normally finesse, meaning she has to take Weapon Focus with a weapon that is useless to her for a minimum of 1 whole level before she can select Slashing Grace. This means that the swashbuckler can’t pick up Dex to Damage until 3rd level without multiclassing. Furthermore, the swashbuckler can’t pick any of the iconic finesse weapons to use Dex to Damage with, such as the rapier.
So, naturally, people are shouting that Slashing Grace is “broken.” Well, no. It’s not. The feat works as it is written and it very clearly does not invalidate Dervish Dance, the agile weapon property, or Weapon Finesse (Mythic). What it is, however, is a case of people’s expectations being one thing and the final result being another. Hopefully now that the anti-Dexterity cow is dead and the dexterous cat is out of the bad, we’ll see more options that allow Dexterity to damage rolls with even more weapons. Still, Slashing Grace will leave a legacy of somewhat clunky game design. We’re going to need an entire slew of feats to cover everyone’s dream weapon with a feat written like this would have saved a bunch of dead tree space:
Prerequisites: Weapon Finesse, Weapon Focus.
Benefit: You can use your Dexterity bonus on attack rolls and damage rolls in place of your Strength with any light or one-handed melee weapon that you have selected with this feat. In addition, the selected weapon is treated as a one-handed piercing weapon for the purpose of feats and class features that require such weapons (such as a swashbuckler’s or duelist’s precise strike).
One feat to rule them, one feat to find them, and in the darkness, bind them.
Divine Protection. Oh gods, I am going to have to talk about Divine Protection. It is hard to know where to start with this feat without getting my heart staked by angry fans, so I’ll start with a description. Divine Protection is the paladin’s divine grace class feature. You add your Charisma bonus on saving throws. If you already an ability that lets you do so, you add +1 to your Charisma bonus when determining your save bonus instead. The prerequisites are simple. Knowledge (religion) 5 ranks, the ability to cast 2nd-level divine spells, and one of the following class features: blessings, domain, or mystery.
So, naturally, people went insane. Charisma to saves is THE major driving force for players looking to dip two levels into paladin. The forums were FILLED with people who said, “Swashbuckler is cool, but I’m going to take a two-level dip in Paladin for Divine Grace.” Or what about all the people who said, “My dragon disciple build uses two levels in Paladin instead of Warrior for Divine Grace. I’m awesome!” And now it is available as a feat that any warpriest, cleric, inquisitor, druid, and even some rangers and paladins can take. Well, all of those classes are Wisdom-based casters who usually dump Charisma, right? So its not that big of a deal.
Wait. What do you mean the oracle can pick it up?
Whether people want to admit it or not, the big controversy about this feat existing is that players do not like the idea of the oracle, a full 9-level spellcasting class, having easy access to the paladin’s divine grace ability at the cost of a feat. Oracles already focus almost exclusively on Charisma, so this feat only reinforces them to do just that. Some players also balance divine grace’s power by the strictness of the paladin’s Lawful Good code. Being Lawful Good is something that most players consider difficult to do, and people few players really want to play stick-up-my-butt paladins (or bat-poop psychotic antipaladins), which is a major detractor from people grabbing this feat. But now, any alignment can take Divine Protection. What’s the world coming to?!
Well, if I could make a guess, I’d assume that Divine Protection was designed for the holy champion warpriest archetype. This archetype basically trades the fighter parent for a paladin parent, gaining a limited smite evil ability that, you guessed it, is even based on Charisma. This feat would allow the warpriest to blow a resource and truly become a “paladin of any alignment” class. And while this feat is good for the Wisdom-based spellcasters, it isn’t incredibly good. None of the domain or blessing-using classes really care about Charisma and even the paladin archetype that gains access to blessings looses his spellcasting, so he doesn’t qualify for the feat anymore. So this feat is a flavorful, Multiple Ability-Dependent option for almost all of the classes that can easily take it, except for oracles. To oracles, this ability is a massive save bonus. But is that really such a bad thing? People often forget this, but the oracle doesn’t have two good save progressions like the cleric, she only has one. Her Will progression. Furthermore, does this ability REALLY promote a Single Ability-Dependent oracle class? I suppose that it ultimately depends on the mystery you choose, but most oracle revelations are limited by uses per day that do not factor in the oracle’s Charisma. Therefore, she has her spells and a few uses per day tricks, but not much else. Most oracles I’ve seen carry a weapon or two and fight a bit in combat. The best mysteries don’t really have blasty spells and the best blasty mystery is the Flame Mystery, which produces spells of the most commonly resistant element in the game. So yeah, if you take Divine Protection as an oracle your saves will go through the roof, but it doesn’t really help you beat anyone else at anything.
For most characters (except the oracle), Divine Protection isn’t going to amount to much more than, say Iron Will or Great Fortitude. Charisma scores higher than 14 on most divine spellcasters are rare. Furthermore, Divine Protection is susceptible to the odd Charisma damage/drain attack where nothing can reduce or hamper Iron Will or Great Fortitude. Divine Protection is incredibly potent, don’t get me wrong, but it is something that a good GM could play around. After all, the oracle is not immune to Charisma-sapping poisons or diseases like the paladin is.
In the end, I think that people are overreacting on the “brokenness” not only of the Advanced Class Guide, but of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game in general. People really don’t like giving their GMs (or themselves) enough credit in their ability to manage the game. Unless you’re playing in Pathfinder Society, remember that you determine what challenges your PCs face and you determine how potent abilities will be in a given encounter. Divine Protection is awesome, unless you’re going up against a gunslinger or a touch attack specialist. Then it does absolutely nothing. And divine grace never saved a single paladin from a wraith.
So, what’s all I have to say on the topic of whether or not the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game (and subsequently, the ACG) is broken. What do you think? Is the game broken? Are these options broken? Is your SOUL broken? Leave your answers and replies below and let’s get some civil, mature discussion going on the topic! Lastly, never forgot, my GMs, the sky will never fall as long as you’re willing to hold it up.
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 oracle, and he would TOTALLY PUMP HIS CHARISMA TO BE THE MOST UNHITTABLE KITSUNE EVER! Even if that means that no one could ever hug him. 🙁
Little note about the Slayer, Studied Target adds to several skills, so the Slayer will be capable of surpassing the Rogue on certain skills because of it.
Something you missed about the Investigator, he adds half his level as an insight on attack rolls *and damage rolls* when using Studied Combat. That’s the huge one for the Investigator, as he is going to have a solid combat option regardless of Studied Strike. In addition, he has access to extracts, for further combat buffs, and he can even take mutagens, for more combat buffs. With ‘spells’ like blur, bull’s strength, shield, alter self etc. the Investigator can turn himself into quite the competent ‘Roid Rager if he so desires. So I would expect, in many cases, the Investigator would be quite capable of beating the snot out of Rogues in a fight, and then, at the same time, kicking his teeth when it comes to skills and out of combat utility.
I won’t comment on Slashing Grace beyond this because I made a huge thread about it on Paizo that I’m fairly certain you’re aware of. What I have to say on Slashing Grace can be found there.
As for Divine Protection… The thing about the feat is that it is the equivalent of 3 feats in one if you have a 14 Charisma, which can often be bought for the price of a magical item. Also, the issue of dipping for it exists as well, like a single level dip into Cleric and, with the right domain, you now qualify for Divine Protection once you hit 5th (due to skill ranks). So a Sorcerer can get Divine Protection for a single level dip, and a Cleric will tend to have a moderate Cha if only for Channels. The Inquisitor and Ranger? Not so much, but the Druid might take it and they have the two best saves in Fort and Will. Other classes, like the Bard or Summoner, might be willing to take a level of Cleric for it as well. There’s also the Shaman and Bloodrager from the ACG who might want it too. Bloodrager can have access to Superstition, and if he gets Cha to saves… Well someone will be able to give that Human FCB Superstitious Barbarian a run for it’s money.
Still, I wouldn’t call Divine Protection ‘broken’ in-as-much as I would say it’s power creep.
I don’t think Pathfinder is broken. What I do think, is that Pathfinder is reaching the limits of the d20 system as it exists from 3rd edition. A big one being that HP and defenses are far too quickly outstripped by offense. The reason for this, is because, HP and AC, largely, rely on only a single attribute. HP especially has so few ways to boost it. I mean, when it comes to attack rolls, you add your BAB, your Strength, your Enhancement, your Class ability, your Spell Buffs, and other misc things to damage, while HP simply gets a dice, Con, and maybe toughness.
I feel that, Pathfinder has taken the weaknesses of the system it’s built on and put a big large magnifying glass over them for all to see. This is no more apparent anywhere else than in Mythic. With Mythic, the damage of single blows can reach over 1,000 points of damage. Granted, it’s usually a highly specific set of circumstances using Charge and a Lance, but even without that, I’ve seen single blows in Mythic reach over 300 points of damage. Mythic takes the weaknesses of the system, and puts it up on Billboards all over the Pathfinder community.
I also think that when it comes to things being ‘broken’ in Pathfinder, it’s no single option. It’s synergies. There are certainly ‘broken’ builds that exist because of synergies that just work too well together, but no single option is so overwhelmingly powerful that it must be taken every time, without fail or you lose.
Well… maybe Power Attack, but that’s in a different category of “take this or your lose”.
I know I’ve built stuff in Pathfinder that synergizes way too well to be allowed. I mean, I’ve got a 10th level Halfling Cavalier capable of hitting you for ~230 points of damage and only solid obstacles block his charge lane. At the same time, many synergies allow for some really fun or interesting builds. Like a recent one I made was a Barbarian who doesn’t use armor and his only real defense is his outstanding damage reduction (DR 19/- at level 12). Or an NPC miner who kills orcs and giants by throwing rocks at them (though this was adapted from Cao Phan and Ravingdork’s builds). Stuff like this makes for some really fun and amusing characters that wouldn’t really be possible in previous systems.
I think, when it comes down to it, you just have to be aware of what things synergize well and keep your eye out for them. That way, if it starts happening at your table, you can nip it in the bud, or adjust the game to account for it.
As a GM for home games with great players, I love the new options and carefully determine which to allow into my game.
As a GM and VO for Pathfinder Society, where nearly everything (short of Mythic) is allowed, it becomes a bit frustrating. Especially when confronted on FB and the message boards with folks trying to game the system even more than the rules allow.
There is an entire population of players who seem to be playing a completely different game than everyone else: theory-crafting the most broken build they can conceive of and then “winning Pathfinder” by dominating play at the table with their beautiful snowflake.
Only issue I’ve picked up with what you’ve said here Will, is that a sorcerer can get divine protection for a single level dip into cleric. You are wrong. You need to be able to cast 2nd level divine spells which is 3 levels for a cleric.
Not true, you just need to be able to cast a divine spell of second level, of which spell-like abilities fulfill the requirement for as per the Paizo FAQ. So an Agathion Blooded Aasimar, or a Daemon Spawn Tiefling, or a divine caster with the Tricker domain or the Fate Inquisition etc. etc. etc. all fulfill this requirement.
The Aasimar is, of course, the best option as +2 con, +2 cha is a solid choice for a class like a sorcerer, and then once they hit 5th level, they can take Divine Protection and get Cha to saves.
Excellent article. It raises some interesting points about Pathfinder chaffing at the edges of 3.5 design philosophy; their is only so much room before you start wanting to add things the system can’t support. Finesse characters always want to do damage if you look at DnD5 they just backed weapon finesse and slashing grace right into the weapons. Something Pathfinder can’t do because of its restrictions, so in order to give players options to play the characters they want they need to shoehorn it in, slashing grace wouldn’t matter if you could rebalance how all the abilities worked, which they can’t.
I have other qualms, like I feel that new classes should have been new and not “hybrid” ones i feel the ones less reliant their core classes for mechanics are the better ones.
In the end its not that pathfinder is broken, its just that designers want to explore new territory and evolve concepts that 3.5 has done to death (and mistakes they have learned from). Pathfinder could be BETTER, and they could make it better, but only a clean slate will let that happen.
Once again, you’ve offered clear and concise arguments on the subject, without me needing to go and read up on the issues presented to understand them. My philosophy is similar, and I’ll allow most of the options from the ACG, so long they work within my gaming world. I do look forward to PFU, and am very curious to how things will look when that book is published.