Advance Class Guide Playtest

Prior to Paizo’s announcement of the 2014 Pathfinder RPG books I participated in some fan speculation on that year’s GenCon release. I said that the one thing I was not hoping for was a “another big book of class options”, because I already have all the classes and class options I need for the RPG. There are four or five classes I haven’t seen in play yet, to say nothing of uncountable archetypes.

And then they revealed the big 2014 GenCon release is… another big book of class options.

Whee.

To their credit, Paizo is doing another playtest to balance the classes and really work out the bugs from the classes. So a review seems appropriate.

Arcanist

The sorcerer/wizard hybrid

The gist of the class is a new variant of spellcasting. Arcanists are essentially sorcerers that prepare their known spells each day like wizards. It’s quite a bit like the pseudo Vancian casting of D&D Next /5th Edition. Other than the casting variant there’s not a lot going on in the class. It gets the ability to bolster spells, which is interesting but could just as easily be part of a sorcerer or wizard archetype. The arcanist picks a school and bloodline from the wizard and sorcerer respectively, but unlike other hybrid classes there’s no personalized combination of the two mechanics.

The arcanist a fun spell system but that’s all it is: a spellcasting system. This isn’t a class. They could publish this as a single-page optional spellcasting system ala words of power. The 3e Unearthed Arcana had a couple alternate alternate systems in that book, I don’t see why this couldn’t fit in a similar book of house rules and customizations.

The point-based system used to bolster spells evokes memories of psionic strength points without making a purely point base caster class. Paizo staff has said before that they can’t do places in Golarion with mental magic without creating a “mind magic” system, so having system that combines points with vancian spells seems wasted on a hybrid. I’d honestly prefer the class if they dropped the very loose arcanist flavour and just called it a “mind mage” or “psion” and used this as the baseline for Pathfinder psionic magic. It’s a missed opportunity.

Bloodrager

The barbarian/sorcerer hybrid

You have to worry about how iconic a class concept is when its name is a compound word.

The bloodrager threw me for a loop. I had expected an uncivilized version of the magus, a spellcasting warrior for barbarian types and savage humanoids. Most of the martial-spellcasting hybrids are about allowing you to be a spellcasting warrior at 1st level.  Instead, it’s the barbarian equivalent of the ranger or paladin where there’s a dash of spellcasting. It doesn’t gain spells until 4th level, which makes it more of a curious class: you could multiclass a barbarian and sorcerer and get similar casting.

There’s some design oddity in it’s main ability: bloodrage. Bloodrage is mechanically identical to the barbarian’s rage, being a word-for-word copy. The difference is… well, there really isn’t a difference. There’s no reason not to call this “rage” and keep the class simpler. They don’t give the bloodrager bloodcanny dodge. Calling it rage would make it easier to qualify for feats, prestige classes, and the like.

The two signature class features for the bloodrager are the ability to cast spells while raging and redesigned bloodlines. While the ability to cast spells while raging is handy this could easy be a part of a barbarian archetype designed around multiclassing.

The bloodlines are interesting, highlighting the intent of the class as a hybrid. The list of bloodlines is the same as the sorcerer’s list where the bloodline abilities are replaced by rage powers. Sorry, bloodrage powers. It’s a combination of two classes that would be hard to do otherwise.

A neat way the designers kept the bloodrager’s spellcasting simple is by giving her the magus spell list, which guarantees future support without requiring every writer to consider “should this spell be a bloodrager spell as well?” However, the magus has six levels of casting while the bloodrager has four. So a magus might expect to cast a 4th level spell at level 10 while the bloodrager wouldn’t get that spell until level 13. The usefulness and utility of some spells is off. While the wizard can fly at level 5 and the magus at level 7 the bloodrager is stuck on the ground until level 10.

Brawler

The fighter/monk hybrid

I can see the need for this class. The monk’s medium Base Attack Bonus and d8 Hit Dice make it a poor front line fighter, and the monk has a lot of spiritual powers and eastern feel that does not work for everyone or every campaign world.  Some people just want to play Daredevil and not Iron First.

(Although, with the super hero analogy in mind, I’m sad the brawler not only not proficient with a shield but that the AC bonus doesn’t apply when using a shield.)

I could really see the brawler being a monk alternate class, but I suppose the higher BAB and HD make the alternate class idea impractical. However, aside from the HD & BAB there’s little that ties this class to the fighter – aside from bonus feats, which the monk has as well. It could just as easily be called a monk/ranger hybrid. Adding the ability to qualify as a fighter for fighter feats (like weapon specialization) would be enough to make the brawler seem more… fightery.

The signature feature of the class is martial maneuvers, which seems overly complicated for an otherwise simple class that’s otherwise just about punching people. I can see it potentially slowing down play as a brawler player searches through every published feat for the right one for that situation. It might really lead to option paralysis.

This ability needed a little extra development/editing. The text of martial maneuvers is pretty vague, but I suppose there’s no alternative other than a giant list of feats. There’s also an odd passage in the second paragraph that I’m not sure I understand. I think it means the brawler cannot activate this power twice to get two feats at the same time. But it could be read as saying if the brawler uses the feat they lose it and have to pick another.

The capstone ability of the brawler is awesome blow, which kinda sorta replicates the feat without actually giving the feat as a bonus. It’s odd. And it’s also problematic as it allows the brawler to knock back creatures its size or smaller but a brawler is unlikely to be fighting many medium sized creatures at level 20. And just getting a set bonus feat isn’t particularly interesting or evocative, which makes this a weak capstone.

Hunter

The druid/ranger hybrid

When I first heard of a druid/ranger hybrid I liked the idea,  mostly due to the potential concept of a shapeshifting ranger: there’s not a lot of shapeshifting in Pathfinder and a martial shapeshifter is an unfilled niche. Instead this is a ranger with more spellcasting, no combat styles or favoured enemy, and an animal at 1st level.

The hunter takes much of its cues from the World of Warcraft class of the same name. The class is a pet class who uses ranged weapons in combat, being proficient only in simple melee. And it can self-buff using animal themed buffs. In WoW these are “aspects” but in Pathfinder these are “animal focus” (although the term “aspect” is used in the flavour text). It’s a flexible little ability that lets the hunter pick from a list of powers and switch between options on the fly.

Rangers are often known for their animals, and the inability to really have a ranger designed to be the pet ranger from first level is an absence in the game. But that’s an archetype, not a class.

The hunter’s medium spellcasting keeps some druid flavour, but weaken the overall class: the druid already fills the gap of the spellcasting pet class. Most rangers I have seen in play want fewer spells, not more. The skirmisher ranger seems to have been a very popular choice.

The hunter is really a concept that would work so much better as a ranger alternate class – like the ninja or the samurai – swapping favoured enemy for a better animal companion and combat style for teamwork feats. And maybe spells for the animal focus. Maybe. The hunter gains nothing from being a hybrid except worse BAB and HD and unneeded spells.

One fixable problem with the class is that it’s limited in animal companion. Technically the only legal optionals are the Animal Choices in the Core Rulebook, and it even gives a page reference. There are lots of interesting animals in later books and it’s a shame to exclude those options.

Investigator

The rogue/alchemist hybrid

The investigator is an alchemist that replaces bombs with sneak attack and discoveries with talents. So, really, it’s an alternate class of the vivisectionist alchemist. Despite being a hybrid of a spellcaster and non-spellcaster the investigator doesn’t seem to lose any spellcasting.

As it replies on sneak attack during combat, the investigator is really equal parts Jack the Ripper and Sherlock Holmes. It doesn’t get bows (apart from the hand crossbow) so it’s going to be sneaking or tumbling about. It’s an odd image.

The signature mechanic of the investigator is inspiration, which allows an investigator to add a d6 to certain checks. However the investigator has limited pool of inspiration and using it on untrained skills depletes the pool. Most investigator talents relate to applying inspiration to other skills, allowing inspiration to be used without reducing the pool. It’s a neat little mechanic but it only amounts to a +3 so it’s going to be very situationally useful. Inspiration will not help turn a bad roll into a good roll. While there is a talent that boosts this to a d8 I wonder if the class might be served by increasing the die at higher levels. Or rolling multiple dies but keeping the highest.

Shaman

The witch/oracle hybrid

I like the idea of this class. The idea of spirits and the spirit world is an underexplored part of the game. The shaman is a big concept that might work better without being forced into the role of hybrid, so it can bring in some druid elements and use its spirit familiar in combat. I even prefer the idea of a shaman to the oracle as a spontaneous divine caster, or the spontaneous version of the druid.  So it’s a real shame the shaman prepares its spells. At the very least, they could have given this class the spellcasting of the arcanist, thus saving us from the inevitable divine variant down the line.

The shaman forms a bond with the spirits of the world, which gives her a couple granted powers akin to domains. The bond also gives the shaman a familiar that is just like every other familiar. I wonder if it could have been a spirit. Or had alternate familiar powers with a spiritual slant. Okay, the choice of spirit bond does grant the familiar a small token ability, but most of these don’t make it more of a “spirit” and just make it seem like a raven on fire or a toad made of rock.l

The shaman spirits come from a list named after oracle mysteries, which grant set hexes like a witch. It’s an elegant design that emphasises the class’ place  as a hybrid of two different classes. However, I’m not sure it does service to the idea of the shaman. It forces spirits into the same boxes as the oracle’s paths, which don’t always fit. The shaman ostensibly draws power from the spirits of nature, from every living thing, but follows a spirit of Battle or Bones or Fire.

Skald

The bard/barbarian hybrid

The class is really a bard with a variant use of bardic music; a skald is a bard who inspires rage instead of courage. It’s interesting but at bit problematic, being really group dependant, as it has no impact on spellcasters and is of lesser use to archers or finesse fighters. This might be problematic in PFS games where the skald sits down at a table and her main class ability just makes everyone easier to hit before fatiguing them.
If the class had a more martial slant, being able to take advantage of its own rage, this might help the class stand out as more than the angry bard (the heavy metal bard?). But the skald is not proficient in more weapons than the bard, and still has a d8 HD and 3/4 BAB. Thus makes the skald a little awkward to play in combat – unlike the bloodrager, the skald cannot cast spells and lacks the health and attack bonuses to wade into melee. It’s really just a bard with a single unique song. Once the skald sings it either chooses not to buff itself or sits and watches the rest of the combat unfold.

The skald suffers from the renaming problem of the bloodrager: it does not have bardic music but raging song. This makes the skald ineligible for bardic feats and prestige classes, which is a big omission.

Giving the skald some alternate uses for raging song might be nice/ Such as being able to enrage the enemy lowering their AC or forcing them to provoke Attacks of Opportunity when they attack. Something more related to the skald and its signature mechanic than spell keening.

Slayer

The rogue/ranger hybrid

I’m really not a fan of the concept of this class. It’s meant to be the damage dealer. The DPR class. But “damage dealer” is a character concept not a class concept. And, frankly, there’s already no shortage of character builds that can almost break the game in sheer damage output: the ranger at my gametable can already destroy an encounter through high damage. Do we need to set the bar even higher? Ostensibly the slayer is trading out-of-combat abilities for higher damage, but that just makes for an inflexible character useless in non-combat situations (while also breaking the game by killing monsters disgustingly fast). The alternative is that the class is balanced with other damage dealing classes ‘n’ builds, but that just means the slayer is equal in combat while inferior in other situations.

The slayer gains favoured target (a variant on favoured enemy) and sneak attack, but not at the same level. It might be very possible to build a character very similar to the slayer using the current multiclassing rules. Favoured target really feels like an indiscriminate variant of favoured enemy. I can see favoured target working just as well in a ranger archetype. I think there’s already a couple that do something very similar. This means the slayer really lacks a distinct tentpole mechanic.

Swashbuckler

The fighter/gunslinger hybrid

The swashbuckler is kinda-sorta related to the gunslinger as its panache mechanic is similar to grit. Which is a little like saying it’s a fighter with a grit-based archetype. Aside from the renamed grit, there’s not much slinging of guns in the swashbuckler. There are many other classes that share mechanics without being hybrids.

Being a Ravenloft fan I like lightly armoured fighters with rapiers, and they’ve been hard to pull off prior to this class. So I’m pro-swashbuckler. The swashbuckler class is somewhat needed. Mostly because prior attempts to make swashbuckling archetypes have been imperfect. It’s a need created by previously poor design.

The big design problem I can see with the swashbuckler is that the entire concept of the class is it uses light weaponry. It is very unlikely there will be a swashbuckler who does not use a finesse weapon. However, the class doesn’t get weapon finesse until 2nd level (called swashbuckler finesse). It’s like telling people “okay, you’re going to have to retrain at 2nd level. Suck it up.” Giving the class deeds, panache, and the equivalent of a feat would be more abilities than the fighter gets at first level, but there are lots of classes that get a feat and other abilities; level 1 fighters do get shafted in terms of power. As some basic weapon finesse the ability doesn’t make the character better per se so much as make them as competent as anyone else at hitting it’s not that overpowered. However, as swashbuckler finesse is a class feature it would be easy enough to have a lesser version of swashbuckler finesse at first level (say, applying to a single weapon) and then increasing bonuses at higher levels.

According to the text of the Bonus Feats feature, the swashbuckler to count as a fighter for feat prerequisites. I believe this allows the swashbuckler to take fighter options like weapon specialization, but some clarification would be nice (such as using weapon spec as an example).

Warpriest

The fighter/cleric hybrid

The common response to the warpriest is “isn’t the paladin the cleric/fighter hybrid?” Yes, yes it is. The warpriest exists because Paizo doesn’t want to expand paladins beyond the scope of Lawful Good into other alignments. And many other clerics might need divine champions. I’ll buy that.

The warpriest gets a couple unique powers. The first relates to weaponry. The warpriest is focused around the weapon of her god and can enchant her weapon. A pretty potent ability that really makes their weapons even better. For a class based around smacking people with weapons this is really good. But as they don’t have a full BAB it should be balanced.

Warpriests also select a blessing. These are named after domains and have granted powers like domains. Often they replicate the powers of domains. But they aren’t domains because… umm… because it doesn’t grant spells and you get the secondary benefit at a different level. As the inquisitor gets domains without spells, I really don’t see the point of blessings. It’s just five pages that could be filled with other content.

 

The need for the Advanced Class Guide seems a little weak.

Many of the new classes of the Advanced Class Guide seem to exist solely because the designers decided to do a book of hybrid classes. There was a need for many of these classes in the book not at the table. Which is odd as one of the obvious hybrids that is missing in the game, the rogue/wizard, is not in the Advanced Class Guide. During the era of 3e, WotC did three different versions of a rogue-like wizard: the spellthief, the beguiler, and – to some extent – the warlock. Plus the arcane trickster prestige class.

The ACG is an oddity. It really does not seem to fit with Paizo’s business model, with how they plan and release their hardcover books. They made Ultimate Combat in part because they needed Asian classes to tell the Jade Regent adventure path. They made Mythic Adventures because they wanted to tell the Wrath of the Righteous adventure path. I don’t see the lack of an investigator preventing a mystery based AP or the absence of a solid swashbuckler holding back a Brevoy or Galt AP. But they’ve said multiple times that the lack of psionic/mental magic is preventing them from doing anything with Vudra. And there’s bound to be other APs that are slightly tricky without certain options or support.

I wonder how much of the 2014 schedule is a result of Paizo reacting to 5th Edition. While the could just continue doing what they’re doing and ignore 5e, it’s hard to not respond to the former market leader trying to steal a chunk of your audience. So we have the Strategy Guide coming out in the spring, which is the book for new players (likely ahead of 5th Edition’s release, potentially swaying a few new players curious about D&D during its anniversary year to Paizo while D&D still lacks products on the shelves). And for the experienced players we have the ACG. The “Don’t want a simple system or the same old classes? Here’s a whole bunch of brand new crunch!” response to 5e.

The Advanced Class Guide  is filled with missed opportunities and classes that didn’t need to exist. The arcanist is an optional spellcasting system, the bloodrager and skald are little more than archetypes, the hunter and investigator are really alternate classes, and the slayer’s concept is not compatible with balance. Forcing the shaman into the role of hybrid class is doing a disservice to the class concept. The brawler and swashbuckler fill a niche, but one created by poor execution in earlier rules. The warpriest kinda works as a divine magus, but this idea alone doesn’t justify an entire book.

Judging the Advanced Class Guide  solely by the playtest’s ten classes, the book feels like an idea that seemed good on paper, and had lots of fun ideas, but fell apart during the execution, likely when it was too late to start working on anything else. But hopefully the rest of the book will make it a worthwhile purchase; the classes are only 50 pages in a 250+ page book. Even adding new archetypes and feats there might still be 100 to 150 pages devoted to other content that might justify the ACG. Of course, they’ve talked about how some of the options will let people get a taste of the new classes, like how the amature gunslinger feat allows non-gunslingers to gain grit. If a regular ranger can gain access to favoured target or animal focus it does mean the new classes become much more irrelevant and needless.