Guidance – Design 101: Class Complexity vs. System Complexity

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 class complexity.

Hello and welcome to today’s installment of Guidance!

As many of my readers know, in addition to being a charming podcast host and a savvy blogger, I dabble quite frequently into game design. I own my own publishing company (Everyman Gaming, LLC) and I freelance stuff for companies such as Legendary Games, Raging Swan Press, and of course, Paizo Publishing. Normally when I write Guidance, the topic at hand doesn’t really require my designing skills or abilities, but today it does, because today I’m going to be talking a bit about class design. Class design, specifically base class design, is by far the most complicated instrument of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. Now, if you’re looking for tips and strategies on how to design effective classes, you’re not going to find them here. The essays in the back of the Advanced Class Guide have all of the information that I could ever impart upon you in that regard. So what is it that I’m going to talk about, if not about designing classes? Complexity, my dear readers. Complexity.

The Vocabulary of Class Design

Before we can really dive in class complexity, we need to make sure that we understand some important vocabulary about classes. Listed below are some of the most common terms that you’ll encounter, as far as classes are determined.

  • Class: Funny story, did you know that the term “class” is never defined in the Core Rulebook? For the purpose of this article, we’re going to define a “class” as a progression of three or more tiers (called levels) that determine the base values of a character’s vital statistics (such as base attack bonus, base saves, skill ranks per level, and hit points), as well as which abilities the character possesses.
  • Base Class: A class that can be selected at 1st level, that possesses a total of 20 levels.
  • Core Class: A base class that is described within Pathfinder RPG Core Rulebook. Core classes function as base classes.
  • Hybrid Class: A base class whose abilities or themes are derived from two existing, different base classes. A hybrid class always includes a description of its parent classes, but otherwise function as base classes.
  • Occult Class: A base class that is described within Pathfinder RPG Occult Adventures. Occult classes automatically gain access to occult skill unlocks, but otherwise function as base classes.
  • Parent Class: A base class whose abilities or themes is used as the foundation for a hybrid class.
  • Prestige Class: A class that includes a number of requirements before it can be selected, that possesses a minimum of 3 levels, up to a maximum of 10 levels.
  • Unchained Class: A base class that is described within Pathfinder RPG Pathfinder Unchained that was designed with the intention of improving an existing base class. Unchained classes otherwise function as base classes.

Okay, with this, NOW we can move on to class complexity.

What is Complexity?

So before we can talk about the importance of class complexity, it helps to begin by figuring out what the heck “complexity” is: what are we talking about when we discuss complexity? Well, the best way to describe class complexity as it pertains to Pathfinder is “the factors involved in the functioning of a Pathfinder class.” In a nutshell, complexity is all of the rules that you need to successfully use a class that are directly tied to that class’s abilities and features. With that, I think that it’s important to take a step back and distinguish between class complexity and system complexity. Whereas class complexity pertains to the complexity of a single class, system complexity pertains to the complexity of an entire system, such as “feats” or spells. Both types of complexity, however, are valid ways for a character to be complex and its worth noting that complexity doesn’t have a direct correlation to “how fun the class is to play,” or “how powerful the class is.”

With all this in mind, let’s take a few minutes to go over Pathfinder’s core classes and rate them on complexity.

  • Barbarian (Average class, no system): The barbarian has some complexity in the workings of its rage powers and rage class feature, but its far from the most complex class in the book. Furthermore, the barbarian lacks system complexity; you can ignore most of the game’s other systems when working with barbarians.
  • Bard (Low class, average system): The bard class, as written in the core rulebook, has only versatile performance for its moving parts, and while it is a spellcaster, its spell list is heavily themed and restricted to six level spells, making it relatively average in terms of system complexity. The bard got a bit more class complexity in Ultimate Magic with the introduction of bardic masterpieces, but in some ways those are almost like a unique system rather than a part of the class, considering they replace feats and spells known.
  • Cleric (Low class, high system): The cleric has only two choices to make: positive or negative and domain. Those two choices govern almost all of the cleric’s rather sparse offerings. In contrast, the cleric has one of the largest spell lists in the game AND she has no real limit on what she can cast; literally the entire cleric spell list is available at a cleric’s whim, which makes for a fair amount of system complexity.
  • Druid (Low class, high system): Druid has the same choices as cleric does, with the extra addition of the wild shape mechanic. With that said, wild shape isn’t really class complexity, because it requires that you know Bestiary entries, not aspects of the druid class. This makes druids extraordinarily complex from a systems perspective.
  • Fighter (Low class, high system): I’m tempted to change fights from “low class” to “no class,” but technically you pick fighter weapon groups, as meager as they are. In truth, all of the fighter’s complexity is invested into the feats system. Similar to bards, fighters just got a bit more class complexity added to them with the creation of advanced weapon trainings, but that system is too young still (and is currently restricted to the Player Companion line) to have any far-reaching effects on the class’s complexity.
  • Monk (No class, low system): The monk is one of those classes that has absolutely NO options built within it from a class perspective. It does get bonus feats available to it, but those feats are so specific that they also add very little complexity to the monk class.
  • Paladin (Low class, low system): The paladin has mercies to pick from that are relatively straight-forward as well as 4th-level spells. The class is effective, but not particularly complex.
  • Ranger (Low class, average system): The ranger has a few small choices that you make, but generally speaking those choices aren’t very interesting; you have your choice of favored enemy, your choice of favored terrain, and whether you have a ranger bond or an animal companion. Rangers also get a very small list of bonus feats, but the real thing that bumps them up to average system complexity is the combination of bonus feats and ranger spells with the druidic spellcasting progression. (Aka I know all my spells and can cast whatever I want.)
  • Rogue (Average class, low system): The rogue has a few choices, namely rogue talents, and some of those talents add a bit of system complexity in
  • Sorcerer (Low class, high system): Similar to clerics, sorcerers have one big choice to make that’s dotted with a number of smaller choices (or pre-chosen cohices), which makes the class relatively simple from a class complexity standpoint. 9th-level spells, however, are intrinsically complex.
  • Wizard (Low class, high system): Pretty much everything that I said about the sorcerer is true about the wizard; just replace “bloodline powers” with “focus schools.”

Now with the core classes in mind, let’s look at Pathfinder’s newer classes to see if we can find any trends. We’ll start with the Advanced base classes. I’m not going to tell you why these classes have the ratings they do this time; let’s see if you can figure it out for yourself. 😀

  • Alchemist (Average class, average system)
  • Cavalier (Low class, average system)
  • Inquisitor (Average class, average system)
  • Oracle (Average class, high system)
  • Summoner (High class, average system)
  • Witch (Average class, high system)

As you can see, the Advanced Player’s Guide was the beginning of the trend towards Paizo’s design philosophy of higher complexity. Next we’ll look at the classes from the Ultimate series and see if that holds up.

  • Gunslinger (High class, average system)
  • Magus (High class, average system)
  • Ninja (Average class, low system)
  • Samurai (Average class, low system)

The two base classes on the list definitely show signs of higher class-to-system complexity ratings, while the two alternate classes are balanced fairly well around their base class equivalents. (Although samurai is a touch weaker, if only because defensive abilities like resolve are inherently weaker than abilities like tactician, which can be used offensively.) With this in mind, let’s look at the Hybrid classes from the Advanced Class Guide.

  • Arcanist (High class, high system)
  • Bloodrager (Low class, average system)
  • Brawler (Average class, high system)
  • Hunter (High class, high system)
  • Investigator (High class, low system)
  • Shaman (High class, high system)
  • Skald (High class, average system)
  • Slayer (Average class, average system)
  • Swashbuckler (High class, average system)
  • Warpriest (Average class, high system)

With the exception of a few outliers (bloodrager and slayer being the big two), most of the classes in the Advanced Class Guide tend towards high class complexity, with average to high system complexity. Let’s look at the new occult classes before finalizing our results.

  • Kineticist (High class, average system)
  • Medium (High class, average system)
  • Mesmerist (High class, average system)
  • Occultist (High class, average system)
  • Psychic (High class, high system)
  • Spiritualist (High class, high system)

So with that, I think we have enough data to comment a bit on complexity for classes (and possibly for the system as a whole).

Complexity Breakdown

The biggest point that I think that we can take away from this information is that Paizo’s design team is definitely working towards a system with more complex classes, and frankly that makes sense. Complexity usually takes the form of variety, so classes that have access to a lot of cool class features tend to be more complex then those that don’t. A good example to this would be to compare two extremes, such as the swashbuckler to the fighter. The swashbuckler has much higher class complexity while the fighter has much higher system complexity. The question, however, is “Which is more fun?”

Typically the answer is “class complexity,” and that isn’t because class complexity results in more powerful options that system complexity; the wizard, for example, is high in systems complexity and it arguably remains one of the most powerful classes in the game. In contrast, class complexity is typically seen as “more fun” because class complexity lends itself towards answering the question, “What is my class?” If we look at the core list of Paizo classes, with only a few exceptions the list of core classes is designed to be evocative, to cater to many different types of characters. The fighter as a class design is versatile enough to serve the same general theme as the swashbuckler or the cavalier, but it lacks the specific complexities that make those concept work well. In contrast, the cavalier and the swashbuckler both deliver on a specific fantasy: the fantasy of the knight on horseback or the daring fencer, respectively. As Paizo moves forward, its class design is likely going to continue towards class complexity because more complex classes typically have more specific niches to fill in terms of what it means to be that class in the world.

So does this mean that you should never play a rogue because rogues are unfun? No, of course not. (You should never play a rogue because the unchained rogue is SO MUCH BETTER!) On the contrary, it means that you should look to the core classes when you have a general theme that needs addressing while turning to the game’s various base classes when you have a more specific character niche in mind. Moving forward, I do think, however, that you should continue to expect to see Paizo making more complex classes to satisfy whatever concepts need filling. In addition, I think you should also expect to see Paizo designers looking for inventive ways to go back and add more class complexity to the core classes that don’t have it, such as how the Weapon Master’s Handbook added advanced weapon trainings, the Advanced Player’s Guide added subdomains, or Ultimate Magic added bardic masterpieces. Mechanics such as these distinguish what the rule of those respective classes is in the roleplaying game world, and as any World of Warcraft fan or 4th Edition burnout could tell you, having your class feel fresh and distinct from someone else’s class feels a LOT better then having every class feel identical.

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 also cohosts the Private Sanctuary Podcast, along with fellow blogger Anthony Li, and you can follow their exploits on Facebook in the 3.5 Private Sanctuary Group, or on Alex’s Twitter, @AlJAug.

Alex Augunas

Alexander Augunas lives outside of Philadelphia, USA where he tries to make a living as an educator. When he's not shaping the future leaders of tomorrow, Alex is a freelance writer for esteemed Pathfinder Roleplaying Game publishers such as Paizo, Inc, Radiance House, Raging Swan Press, and more, and also acts as a co-host and blogger on the Know Direction Network, where he has earned the nickname, "The Everyman Gamer." Recently, Alex has forayed into the realm of self-publishing through his company, Everyman Gaming, LLC. If you like Alex's writing and are interested in supporting him while getting professional-quality material for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game while doing so, check out the Everyman Gaming, LLC catalog, which is listed under Rogue Genius Games at the following locations:


  1. *headscratch* what choices do you make as a gunslinger to earn high class complexity? Even the feats are pretty locked in. It looks more like old monk than occultist.

    • Darrell Vin Zant Reply to Darrell

      While you don’t make nearly any choices as you level up for the Gunslinger, you do make many choices in which deeds you wish to perform. I think Alex overestimated the complexity of a few choices (fighter’s having high system complexity?), the Gunslinger just being one of them.

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