PF Review: Advanced Class Guide

At GenCon 2014 Paizo Incorporated (formerly Paizo Publishing) released their latest hardcover release for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game: the Advanced Class Guide.

Like their last few GenCon releases, the ACG features a public playtest of the content prior to release, and I reviewed those options briefly in an earlier blog.

What Is It?

PZO1129_500The 14th (or is it the 15th?) setting neutral hardcover release for Pathfinder RPG, the Advanced Class Guide is a 253-page full colour hardcover rulebook. It features 71-pages of new classes, 59-pages of new archetypes, 23-pages of new feats, 37-pages of spells, 35-pages of magic items, and a 10-page section of making classes.

There are ten new classes in the book: arcanist, bloodrager, brawler, hunter, investigator, shaman, skald, slayer, swashbuckler, and warpriest. All are hybrids of existing classes, merging two options that are not well supported through traditional multiclassing.

The Good

The book has a solid “hook” and it maintains this. Paizo is good for this; rules bloat becomes a problem when you cannot identify what book content is found inside. If you’re building a melee character Ultimate Combat is your source, if looking for spellcasters Ultimate Magic should be your first stop, and if mixing the identify of two classes then the Advanced Class Guide is the place to look. Each of the 10 new base classes mix two existing classes, and most of the archetypes also blend together classes. It’s not just new generic options for the old classes, but options that take advantage of the new mechanics or add a dash of another class.

The classes also seem fairly well balanced. There are a few that push the envelope, such as the bloodrager that seems a little better at first level than the straight barbarian. There are some good level dips, a few strong archetypes, and several good feats. But Paizo is doing their best to manage power creep; there doesn’t seem to be a repeat of the summoner.

The art is good, and there are some great pieces in the feat and spells sections. The production values are Paizo’s standard high quality. And the new iconic characters are drawn by Wayne Reynolds, so the new ones match the existing iconics. And, as always, there’s a nice mix of genders, races, and ethnicities among the iconics. If you read the blog, the dwarf shaman is even trans, but you’d never know that from looking at the book as the backgrounds are not included.

The advice on creating classes is solid. Unlike the race creation rules from Advanced Race Guide these are more general guidelines, like the spell creation advice from Ultimate Magic. It walks you through the steps of how to think of a new class, and discusses related options such as prestige classes and archetypes.

5I like a few of the new classes. This gets a little personal, as there are some classes I really dislike as well that other people are really excited for. So it’s hard to go through the class list and say definitively “class X is good” while “class Y is bad”. But that’s not going to stop me.

Personally, I love the idea of the investigator and the move away from sneak attack works nicely. The non-combat rogue is a character concept I enjoy, as is the urban detective. I like my mystery adventures, so an investigator fits the kind of games I like to run. And the class is something that’s trickier to do with the established classes, being less combative and more skill based.

The brawler is simple and fun. I like the monk, but it doesn’t fit a lot of campaigns and worlds. The eastern mysticism doesn’t always translate. The brawler fixes that, and is arguably more effective than the monk. It could have been an alternate class of the monk though, but it includes some improvements we’ll likely see for the monk in Pathfinder Unchained early 2015 (like full Base Attack bonus and d10 hit dice).

And a swashbuckler class was also needed. Well… not “needed” per se, but past attempts at a finesse class were not great, so bad rules left room for this class to exist. I’m playing one in Pathfinder Society (originally to playtest) an am enjoying the class.

A small note should be made of a layout tweak for the spells section. Portraits of the relevant characters are included along with the class’ name. It’s minor but a neat way of making the spells section stand out.

The Bad4

When I first heard Paizo was doing a book of hybrids I predicted a few classes, with one being the arcane trickster. A rogue/sorcerer or rogue/wizard that mixes sleight of hand with spellcraft. It’s been seen as a beguiler and spell thief in 3rd Edition D&D and the arcane trickster Prestige Class of 3e and PF. And while they mix the rogue with the alchemist and ranger we don’t get a magical rogue. Sad. It’s such a classic archetype, going back to the Grey Mouser and other trickster figures with magical powers. It’s certainly more iconic than a lot of the other classes that did make it into the book.

The vast majority of the book is just more class options for a game that already has five hardcover books full of class options. The one exception is the chapter on class creation, and while that’s good it’s a pretty short section. The section on designing spells in Ultimate Magic was twelve pages, and that covered a far smaller subject. There’s almost as many pages dedicated to mundane & alchemical equipment. They could have easily expanded the section with much more advice. Or created a class as an example, perhaps showing how they made a class and an archetype from the book to demonstrate the advice and balance concerns.

While the art of the book is not bad, it doesn’t compare well to more recent RPGs. Most of the art in the book is just figures posing or doing slight actions. There’s only images of the iconics in the class section, and with the size of some of the entries this means a lot of pages that are just walls of text. And the archetypes section is similar, only with less iconic figures. There’s some real generic pictures among the archetypes, and many that don’t really seem to fit any of the archetypes presented. And there’s a very obvious piece of recycled art, pulled from the cover of the Alchemy Manual; it’s a lovely piece, but doesn’t feature any of the new characters and feels really out of place.
The book doesn’t even have the bold borders or extra style of the Inner Sea World Guide and just looks rather plain. Some other recent Pathfinder books have been adding extra tabs at the edge of pages. When 60+ pages is devoted to a single chapter, some tabs identifying the current class on each page would not only make flipping easier but add a visual break to the page.

The Ugly

So many of the classe3s in this book just feel unnecessary. The skald is very much a bard with an alternate form of bardic music, the arcanist is just a wizard with an alternate form of spellcasting, and they really had to struggle to make the warpriest to be more than a fighter/cleric, tacking on some class features. I’m really not a fan of class design determined by the mechanics and not the store/lore.

For example, in addition to its alternate spellcasting, the arcanist also gets a pool of arcane points. But, a wizard archetype also gains access to those so the only difference is their spellcasting. It would have taken far less space to have just provided rules for the pseudo-Vancian casting and allowed spellcasters to pick which version they liked, which would also have allowed it to be used by clerics and druids. I expect we’ll see an oracle version of the arcanist soon enough…
The shaman especially seems like a mess. It’s a combination of the oracle and witch, but gets mostly druidic spells and is a prepared caster that uses Wisdom. It’s connection to the oracle is that their spirits share names with oracle mysteries, the most tenuous of connections that could have been removed by a renaming. The shaman also gets hexes like the witch, which is a little more connected as it shares actual mechanics. The class doesn’t really commune with spirits outside of the flavour of its “gain generic supernatural powers” features, lacking mechanics that allow it to act as a bridge between the mortal and spirit world. A shaman, a class with a strong connection to spirits, is an archetype the game did not incorporate well, but this shaman seems awkward due to its forced connection to two other classes. It might have been a much better fit in Occult Adventures where it didn’t need to have an arbitrary connection to two other classes.

All this makes the book feel a little like distilled rules bloat. I wonder if the intent of this book was very different and it just shifted over time. With 5th Edition looming, I imagine Paizo wanted to embrace the complexity of their system and provide a crunchier experience, and this was their answer.

I wonder if 10 classes was just too many, and if they should have just set their sights lower. The APG did well with just 6 new classes.

The Awesome

The slayer includes a new fighting style that can be used by rangers: thrown weapons. It’s a neat little addition I know some ranger fans have been wanting.2

Speaking of throwing, the brawler has an archetype that allows it to throw its shield. Because of a technicality, brawlers get access to the shield as a weapon (they’re proficient with close weapons) and this was the logical extension. I love it, and it might be my next PFS character.

There’s a hunter archetype, the feral hunter, who turns into animals and gets wildshape. Pathfinder has been lacking in shapeshifter builds, so this is a nice addition.

The inquisitor gets some really fun archetypes as well, such as the mastermind, sleuth (think noir gumshoe) and even a spiritualist filling the role of the John Silence occult detective.

There’s a few classes and archetypes that might make for better villains than PCs. A strength of the 3e/PF system is that books like these are as much for GMs as for players, which is so often forgotten. But we have the aforementioned mastermind archetype and options like the cultist for the warpriest or cleaner for slayers (think “the Wolf” from Pulp Fiction).

Final Thoughts

1If I was going to add a big new book of new classes and options to my PF game, I’d rather add Occult Adventures, the book announced for GenCon 2015. Counting alternate classes, there’s already 22 classes in the game, and 10 new classes is a LOT. The Advanced Class Guide just feels like filler. It’s just a big book of more: more classes, more feats, more archetypes, more spells. That’s fine for your second or third player-focused release in a campaign line – it worked well for Advanced Player’s Guide – but it’s less essential as the seventh release.

The ACG lacks the solid story hook of Mythic Adventures or the planned Occult Adventures and the big unique subsystem of Advanced Race Guide. Which is disappointing for Paizo, as so many of their past books have been focused around providing options necessary for Adventure Paths. Ultimate Combat was released so they could do the Jade Regent AP and Mythic Adventures was released to accommodate Wrath of the Righteous. Nothing in the ACG seems necessary for Iron Gods or Giantslayer. There are no stories that can now be told with the shaman or bloodrager that could not have been told before.

But… I’m sure there are a lot of players who just want more options. Despite my cynicism for the class, a player in my group is thinking of an arcanist for our next campaign; he was never fully happy with the spellcasting for sorcerers and wizards. So for anyone who thinks that two-dozen classes just is not enough, this book is for you. Most of the time, the ACG does what it sets out to do, which is faint praise but praise none the less.