Welcome to Guidance, Private Sanctuary’s source for tips and techniques for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, written by Everyman Gamer Alexander Augunas. Today, Alex is going to be sharing his Top 10 Least Favorite Design Choices in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.
Author’s Note: The following article includes the author’s thoughts on a number of design decisions made throughout the Pathfinder RPG’s history. Some are his, some aren’t. This article is intended to be reviewed as a self-reflective piece and isn’t intended to be a criticism of any of the authors or designers involved and isn’t intended to be construed as such.
To preface, I want to admit that this is a VERY difficult article for me to write. Not only because I love the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, but also because I am so closely involved in its production as a 3PP and freelancer. However, I think it is important to acknowledge the flaws in something that you love so it can be made stronger, so it is with absolutely no ill intent towards anyone who has ever worked on any of the topics that I am about to mention as being my least favorite design choices in the game.
Don’t worry, folks: I’m the guy who screwed up on Aesthetic Style in the Weapon Master’s Handbook. I know what its like to be responsible for something that drives people crazy.
So today, I’m going to talk about 10 aspects of Pathfinder’s general design that irk me. They don’t make me froathing mad. They don’t make me want to take to the forums and scream profanities. They are, however, things that are on my personal radar as “things to try and fix when I’m given design freedom,” or “things not to do,” if the issue is something that can’t be fixed.
And with that, let’s begin.
Words of Power
I never liked this system for a couple of different reasons. First, words of power never really felt to capture the specifics of the general Spellcasting system. Amusing, right? There are TONS of spells that are iconic to the game that you can’t build well in words of power. The most notable being magic missile; its impossible to have the “never misses” attribute in words of power. Second, I felt like the rules weren’t well organized. This felt like it wanted to be a lot bigger than it was, but it ultimately is something that never gets used, and as far as I’m aware it isn’t even canon for Golarion. That’s disappointing.
How It Can Be Fixed: I think that this concept is something that would work better either as the topic of an independent class (rather than an all-new Spellcasting system) or as a product produced by a 3PP (I’ve heard from friends that Spheres of Power did the concept better). If Pathfinder ever did a truenamer style class, I would want its Spellcasting to be entirely based around words of power. Otherwise, I’ll pass.
Dramatic Reorganization of the Kineticist
One of the most common critiques that I hear of Occult Adventures, even from experienced players, is “I didn’t even bother to try and read the kineticist class. I can’t handle the number of beers it would take to stop the headaches.” Rather than being a byproduct of the class itself, this is mostly an issue with its organization within the Occult Classes chapter, and how it compares to the original version in the playtest document. In the Occult Adventures playtest, all kineticist talents were organized by the minimum kineticist level needed to select them. But when the final printing of Occult Adventures was released, the kineticist talents had an all-new system that was noted only in a single place, in the description of the wild talent class ability itself, and this “new system” was that every talent had an effective spell level, and a kineticist could only choose a talent if her level was equal to twice the talent’s spell level. Quite a few local players missed that change because of the true problem with the kineticist’s organization: information is spread EVERYWHERE in the class description.
What do I mean by this? Well, take a look at Spellcasting and you’ll see the problem. For all classes with Spellcasting, their class features indicated how their spells per day and spells known work for that specific class, and the rest of the rules are handled in a separate section. Kineticists, on the other hand, have everything from rules regarding specific kinds of talents, how they work and function, and general information about all kinds of talents in different places. That’s because “wild talent,” “utility talent,” and “infusion” are all “class abilities” of the kineticist when the rules noted under the “wild talent” section equally apply to both “utility talents” and “infusions.” That juxtaposition combined with the sheer number of talents available has players skipping madly across a sum of 25+ pages in order to find the answer to one tiny question.
How It Could Be Fixed: Layout problems are weird. As a publisher, mucking around with a layout that you’ve already created can be truly disastrous, so I think we’re going to be stuck with the kineticist’s layout problems. The I think it would have been more effective if the section said something like, “At level X, the kineticist gains an infusion wild talent, chosen from the list available to kineticists of her element.” Then you take all of the explanations of WHAT wild talents are and how they work in a separate section, and THEN you list the available wild talents.
In short, lay them out like spells.
Versatile Performance’s Lack of Retraining
James Jacobs talks a lot about how its odd that nearly every versatile performance includes skills that a bard already wants to be good at, but the fact that you can essentially “waste” your skill ranks is a huge problem for a class that basically lives on skill ranks. This gets worse as the bard gets higher in level; not only does it become more likely that you’re already going to have ranks in one of the key social skills that nearly all versatile performances grant to the bard, but the versatile performances even start to overlap with one another, causing the bard to make a choice that is effectively worthless. (I don’t need to substitute both my Perform [sing] and Perform [comedy] for Bluff, after all.)
How It Could Be Fixed: A FAQ and/or an errata. Here’s what I would do.
Versatile Performance (Ex): At 2nd level, a bard can choose one type of Perform skill. He can use his bonus in that skill in place of his bonus in associated skills. When substituting in this way, the bard uses his total Perform skill bonus, including class skill bonus, in place of its associated skill’s bonus. If he had ranks either of the chosen skill’s associated skills, he can reassign skill ranks from those skills to his chosen Perform skill, up to his character level. Any remaining skill ranks are assigned to other, unassociated skills as if the bard had gained those skill ranks from attaining a new level.
At 6th level, and every 4 levels thereafter, the bard can select an additional Perform skill. He adds the chosen Perform skill, as well as any skills associated with that Perform skill, to the list of skills that are associated with the Perform skill that he chose at 2nd level.
The types of Perform and their associated skills are: Act (Bluff, Disguise), Comedy Bluff, Intimidate), Dance (Acrobatics, Fly), Keyboard Instruments (Diplomacy, Intimidate), Oratory (Diplomacy, Sense Motive), Percussion (Handle Animal, Intimidate), Sing (Bluff, Sense Motive), String (Bluff, Diplomacy), and Wind (Diplomacy, Handle Animal).
Not only does this make the class ability cleaner to use, but it prevents versatile performance from becoming a dead ability at high levels; that means instead of being forced to choose the same small number of Perform skills that don’t overlap, you let the bard continue to be good at performances without drastically improving the power of versatile performance.
Feral Combat Training’s Errata
Let me start by saying that as originally written, Feral Combat Training was stupid. I myself have used it in a number of builds, but I never built it to be truly ridiculous. Since joining PFS, I have SEEN the truly ridiculous. I have SEEN the octomonks. I have tried to have fun next to them and failed. I completely understand why the phrase, “effects that augment” doesn’t work from a game design perspective. (Which is why I’m ashamed that I goofed and wrote it into Aesthetic Style.)
However, I also believe that the Feral Combat Training errata swung the feat too far in the other direction. After this year’s errata, Feral Combat Training only works with the effects of feats that have Improved Unarmed Strike as a prerequisite and the flurry of blows class feature. That list is REALLY small, and it totally misses the one REALLY fun thing about Feral Combat Training: having savage monks that used their monk damage progression for Feral Combat Training. That part was never the broken part; it was all of the other effects that you could apply to Feral Combat Training, like Pummeling Style and the like.
How It Could Be Fixed: An errata that makes specific mention that the character can use its unarmed strike damage in place of the natural weapon’s normal damage. Heck, even if you had to add a monk level –4 clause (like the close combat mastery class feature), that would be fine with me.
Unchained Summoner’s Restrictions on Mount
For the most part, I love the Unchained Summoner’s rewrite. I love the focus on existing monsters. I love the theme of being a “X summoner,” where X is a specific kind of monster. I love the pruning some OP evolutions that didn’t fit the summoner’s new theme, I love the reorganizing of the point cost of evolutions and the summoner’s spell list. I love just about every aspect of the unchained summoner … except for one, relatively tiny thing.
The mount evolution.
What don’t I like about the mount evolution? It has subtype restriction. Why? Why does it have a subtype restriction? What if someday Paizo released a blink dog eidolon or a hound of tiranos eidolon? Why can’t I mount it? Why does the current list exclude agathions, which are LITERALLY animal-shaped outsiders? (They even have access to bipedal quadrupedal base forms.) Better yet, why are there any restrictions on what eidolons you can mount at all? The Pathfinder Core Rulebook has NO restrictions on what you can and cannot mount in combat. (Yes, phrasing. STAY WITH ME PEOPLE!) So why does the eidolon put that restriction on you?
I think the current subtype limitation system is going to bite designers in the butt going forward, as it becomes difficult to add old evolutions to new eidolons. And I’m not sure how we’d fix the problem in the current system.
How It Could Be Fixed: Drop the subtype requirements and replace them with base shape requirements.
Dex-to-Damage and “No Dual Wield” Ban
Combat is a dance, and it stands to reason that no one would be better at it then Dex-based fighters, right? I mean, a dexterous flurry of weapons is practically the Iconic image of the ranger class, immortalized by drow ranger Driz’zt DuUrden. Yet at virtually every turn, it seems like the design team has been trying to keep the cap on Dex-to-damage in some regard or another. Nowhere is this more evident then the changes to Slashing Grace, a feat that once allowed you to pick one one-handed slashing weapon and use Dex to damage with it. Nevermind that it didn’t also allow you to finesse said weapon automatically, it also excluded all light slashing weapons from being selected with it, which meant that it was solely for swashbuckler. (Its exact wording included “use the selected weapon as if it were a piercing weapon, which means that a swashbuckler, or a character with a similar finesse ability, could use Weapon Finesse it. But no one else.)
So when the errata came along, light weapons were added to the Slashing Grace feat. But then the feat was also rewritten so one couldn’t be using ANYTHING in their other hand sans a buckler. Again, swashbucklers only. I have a lot of thoughts on why this was done, but without asking a designer I can’t be 100% certain. The first possibility is that the designers want to keep Dex-to-damage as a unique class feature of the new unchained rogue, which I personally frustrating since it’s the swashbuckler, not the rogue, that’s supposed to be the master of finesse fighting. (More on my frustrations with the swashbuckler in a bit.) The other possibility is that the design team views Dex to damage as being too powerful, despite the huge amount of resources needed to pull it off. I have thoughts on this as well, but there’s a good chance that I’m going to be preaching to the choir, so leave a comment in the notes below if you want to hear more on this one; otherwise I’m moving on.
How to Fix It: Remove the “no off-hand attacks,” bit from the feat. Slashing Grace is far more feat-intense then simply going unchained rogue 3, and an unchained rogue can use this feat as well. Dex to damage shouldn’t be a class feature; it should be something everyone can do, because it’s a fighting style. Not a class.
Fighter’s “Exclusion” from Pathfinder Unchained
Pathfinder Unchained is most famous for updating four classes: the barbarian, the monk, the rogue, and the summoner. Of those three, pretty much everyone agrees on the monk, the rogue, and the summoner. But the barbarian? Even though the final outcome is a great improvement over the standard barbarian, I’ve always found myself wondering, “Why?” Without a doubt, the barbarian is the most powerful combatant at Level 1, and it stays relevant into high levels. The redesign focused mostly on simplifying the barbarian’s math and empowering its rage powers, and while I can understand the need to simplify the class’s math, I don’t get boosting the rage powers, because that’s really what happened: nearly all of the rage powers in the Core Rulebook got upgrades.
Meanwhile, improvements to the fighter class happened in a separate, not-a-class section using a system called Stamina and Combat Tricks. This system offers a “totally-not-bound-by-class” system where martial characters can get a pool of points to use to enhance their martial tricks and abilities. Tons of alternate rules went into the section suggesting how it could be adapted to be fighter only, and it was touted as a “way to fix the fighter.” But can a new subsystem REALLY improve an entire class like that?
In my opinion, it does not. The fighter is a decent class on its own; my favorite, in fact. But the stamina and combat tricks system doesn’t improve the fighter because it doesn’t improve the class: it provides suggestions, not rules. It’s the equivalent of a designer writing a whole alternate system in her free time and posting it for free on a forum. The class wasn’t fixed or improved, it was supplemented it. And for PFS players, this attempt might as well not exist because stamina and combat tricks are illegal in Organized Play.
How It Can Be Fixed: The fighter needs a real, honest attempt at an unchaining. I have my thoughts and opinions on this one too, and it starts with the Stamina and Advanced Weapon Training options being core parts of the fighter class. Maybe I’ll share more on that someday….
Brawler / Monk Restrictions on Flurry Weapons
This is one of the BIGGEST pet peeves that I have in my arsenal. (It IS Top 3, after all!) Both the brawler and the monk (including the unchained monk) have class abilities that specifically modify a very small subset of weapons; close weapons for the brawler and monk weapons for the monk. But BOTH of these two classes gain proficiency with a small number of weapons that they CANNOT use in any way. Generally speaking, brawler is the bigger offender; it is proficient with the dagger and the shortsword, two iconic “dirty fighting gladiatorial weapons,” that it CANNOT use with any of its class features! Monk is in a similar boat, as both real-world martial arts AND fantasy shows monks incorporating a huge number of weapons into their monastic practices. Both classes have lists that are simply too narrow for their own good.
How It Can Be Fixed: A simple feat that requires Weapon Focus would do it. “You can use the selected weapon with brawler and monk class features as if it was a monk weapon and a weapon in the close fighter weapon group.” That is literally all it would take, and both the brawler and monk could use the extra love too.
Gunslinger / Swashbuckler Class Progression
I like to think that I’m somewhat famous for my distaste for these two classes from a design standpoint. (So much so that Jason Nelson decided to make me in charge of the Legendary Swashbuckler and Legendary Gunslinger projects, at any rate.) So let me give you the cliff notes version.
First, the classes have absolutely NO player choice in them aside from bonus feats. Deeds are simply gained, not chosen, so all gunslingers and swashbucklers are identical. Second, both classes gain new abilities, but never improve those abilities. Rogue makes you want to take more levels by enticing you with more talents and increased sneak attack damage. Sorcerer/wizard entices you by improving your spells per day and spells known. Ranger improves your favored enemy bonuses. Every class makes the abilities you have better as you improve in power. Gunslinger and swashbuckler, on the hand, opt to drown you in situational abilities that are all tied to the same action: swift action. (Its worse for the swashbuckler than the gunslinger, but not by much.) Instead of improving how panache is gained or making it easier to spend panache on some deeds, you just get more, more, more.
In addition, both classes, two no-spellcasting full BAB martial classes, get fewer feats then the WARPRIEST, a spellcasting class, a resource both classes desperately need. (They also get fewer feats than the monk and the ranger, and they lack the sheer of the only martials that get fewer feats then them, the bloodrager, the cavalier, and the paladin. And yes, the cavalier is mighty because it’s a full BAB class with an animal companion and a massive damage buffing ability.)
As a result, both classes end up only being good until Level 5; when gunslingers get Dex to damage and swashbucklers get early-access Improved Critical. (And yes, GUNSLINGERS get Dex to damage but SWASHBUCKLERS don’t.) Afterwards, the fact that neither class has any substantial ability worth sticking around for means that you’re better off multiclassing OUT of swashbuckler or gunslinger and into something, almost anything, else.
How It Can Be Fixed: Honestly, I don’t know that you can fix these classes without a massive, unchained-style rewrite. They both need incentives to stick to the class beyond 1st level, class features and abilities that are unique, and the ability to use a multitude of different weapons with similar proficiency. I wrote something along those lines for Legendary Games called Legendary Swashbuckler, but even now I’m not entirely convinced that was the best approach either.
Surprise. My least favorite design choice is the one I mad. Who would have guessed it? So for some background info, I wrote large parts of Paizo’s Weapon Master Handbook, including the weapon style feats that appear in that book. One of the styles I wrote was Aesthetic Style, and it was supposed to encapsulate monk weapons as a whole. Now, if you’ve never looked into the list of monk weapons in the game, it is REALLY large and REALLY diverse, so I had no idea what I could do to make a satisfying feat chain for a long while. Ultimately, I decided to make the style based around incorporating your monk weapon into your monastic traditions better, and that’s when I made the biggest mistake of my relatively short career: I used the worst three words in the Pathfinder design industry: effects that augment.
Why is this bad? Well, simply put, “effects that augment” is so incredibly all-encompassing that it literally means EVERYTHING, which has some sticky design problems. When the book came out, I had people asking if they could stack weapon enhancement bonuses with the enhancement bonus from the amulet of mighty fists, or if brawling armor applied to the weapon. I remember someone saying, “Wow I can’t believe it says that so soon after Feral Combat Training got nerfed,” and I thought to myself, “Please tell me I didn’t write it like that…,” but I checked my turnover and I DID. I DID make the BIGGEST MISTAKE EVER. And I was SO ashamed of it!
And that’s the story of how I wrote a feat chain that was instantly banned in PFS!
How to Fix It: Looking at my notes, I intended for Ascetic Style to work different then how it did. I wrote this:
“While using this style and wielding the chosen weapon, you can apply the effects of feats that have Improved Unarmed Strike as a prerequisite, as well as any effects that augment an unarmed strike.”
But what I wanted to write was this:
“While using this style and wielding the chosen weapon, you can apply the effects of feats that have Improved Unarmed Strike as a prerequisite, as well as any feat that augments an unarmed strike.”
This happens to be exactly what Feral Combat Training was changed to post errata. (So despite my wishes earlier, I feel you, PDT! I really do.) The reason is simple: as written Ascetic Style completely invalidates its subsequent feats.
So yup, while there are many design choices that I’m not fond of in Pathfinder, the greatest of them is my own! Oh, the irony! (Not really, Designer 101 is that we’re all HUGELY self-critical people.) So, what do you guys think of my list and the suggestions that I wrote to fix them? What would you do differently from my suggestions, and what items are on your personal list of LFDCs? Leave any comments you have below or on Facebook, but please: keep in civil. Not once did I ever attack or belittle any designer except myself, so I expect all of my readers to do the same. Be cool, or don’t “be” at all. See you next week, folks!
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.