I’ve spoken before of how I became burned out on the never-ending treadmill of supplements that Pathfinder (like 3.X before it) turns out. Despite that, I still tend to haunt the Paizo forums from time to time. While I’ve lost interest in the speculating that goes on over new products and the discussions over how to interpret various rules, the threads on more general topics still have some interest for me.
One such thread was a recent discussion about the “imbalance” between martial characters and (full-progression) spellcasters. While this particular issue has come up so many times that the regular forum-goers are sick to death of it – and given that this particular topic long predates the creation of Pathfinder, they’re assuredly not the only ones – this particular discussion struck me as being different. That was because, for all of the usual arguing and theatrics that go into these discussions, by the end of this thread there seemed to be a surprisingly large degree of consensus over what the problem actually was, to say nothing about what needed to be changed in terms of practical aspects of martial and spellcasting classes. People even seemed to admit that this wasn’t likely to ever be done in official Pathfinder materials.
Perhaps my single favorite part of the thread was a truly epic rant that one poster went on about one of the reasons why this problem became such an issue in the first place; namely, the idea that martial characters should be limited to abilities that are not magical/supernatural/mystical in nature, instead being confined to the realm of what real people could potentially do. To quote selected excerpts:
“For some people, Conan is the height of what a martial should be. He never does anything particularly outside of what might be accomplished in the real world outside of a few feats of strength and agility, and he’s probably the most badass “mundane” in trad fantasy. However, it’s stupid to try and have Conan as your epitome for a D&D/PF martial, because the most wicked and powerful spellcaster in his world lacks the ability to throw around the kind of power even a moderately potent wizard has in Pathfinder. Making a character like Conan or Gimli the definition of what a martial should be is positively stupid, because neither of those characters displayed any kind of prowess or ability beyond what a 6th level Fighter or Barbarian might have.
The kind of adventures that are had in the Lord of the Rings or that are had by Conan of Cimmeria are low level adventures, and most people who feel that martials are broken aren’t even talking about those levels. But high level spellcasters in PF are above and beyond, and you either have to go to really old school Celtic or Norse mythology to find examples of “martial” characters that match that kind of power, or you have to turn to anime (much of which is actually inspired in its own turn by western mythology and Dungeons and Dragons).
You can bring martials up to the level of Cu Chulainn or you can bring casters down to the level of characters like Thoth-Amon or Gandalf, but trying to maintain a world where Gimli and Naruto are best buddies who go from level 1 to level 20 together is a huge part of why martial/caster disparity exists in the first place. Gimli manifestly does not belong in the world of Naruto Shippuden, and Naruto obviously would have annihilated the enemy forces of the Lord of the Rings.”
All of this is entirely true, and is another way of saying that the d20 System has such a huge spread of power between level 1 and level 20 that going across it essentially (indeed, necessarily) spans genres. Hence why, if you want to have a campaign that covers the full range of levels, you should calibrate your expectations accordingly.
The Solution (At Least, To Me)
While the conversation reached its unexpected point of general agreement regarding what the root of the problem was and what should be done about it, the practical methods of making those changes were largely summarized by another poster:
“So the only realistic solutions are homebrew, 3pp and other games.”
That struck me as a fair statement, particularly in light of the fact that I’ve gotten past these particular problems by using Distant Horizons Games’ book Eclipse: The Codex Persona, a free sourcebook for d20 System games.
For those who don’t know (which likely won’t include longtime readers of this blog, since I’ve come to use this book for nearly all of the characters I post on here), Eclipse is a supplement that allows for characters to be built via point-buy, rather than with character classes.
I suspect that a lot of Pathfinder fans are put off by the words “point-buy,” largely due to the perception that being able to pick and choose what abilities your character has, at least for d20 games such as Pathfinder, is unbalanced. I can understand that way of thinking, but to me that tends to overlook a few fundamental factors:
1) Characters are NOT built in isolation, nor should they be. Tabletop role-playing is fundamentally a cooperative activity. You’re playing the game with other people, not only in the sense that there are multiple participants, but also in that the players are working together; their player-characters are all teammates.
This holds true for character-building just as much as any other part of the game. While a lot of people seem to think that making your character is something that should be done free from interference from other players, or the GM, I think that looking at this as “interference” in the first place is wrong. Considering the other players, the kinds of characters they’re making, and the GM and their campaign world are not undue burdens.
Taking into account that you’re trying to have fun with other people means finding a happy medium between doing what’s good for your fun (e.g. making a character that you want to play) while also taking into consideration what will abet (or at least, not conflict with) everyone else’s fun (e.g. making a character that won’t outshine everyone else’s characters most of the time, won’t be the only evil character in a good party, etc.).
In other words, just sitting down at the same table as everyone else means acknowledging that there’s a “gentleman’s agreement” in effect. Just because you think you can make a character that’s far stronger than everyone else’s doesn’t mean that you should. This nicely dovetails into the second point…
2) The rules are NOT limits to be pushed. “System mastery” is something that a lot of people seem to lionize when it comes to building a d20 character. This point of view is based off of the idea that players will try to create the most powerful characters they possibly can, and that limitations on the choices you can make when designing your character are there to impede this kind of optimization.
This view always struck me as being an excuse for the abdication of personal responsibility. “The rules exist to restrain my excesses, so with that safety net in place there’s no reason for me not to go hog-wild!” is the thought. The problem with this line of thinking is that it isn’t true.
Even if we accept the premise that the restrictions on building a traditional Pathfinder character are there to stop players from over-optimizing, it’s fairly obvious that this goal is not being achieved under the current game rules. That’s hardly surprising, since limiting “munchkin” outcomes requires restricting choices, whereas Pathfinder keeps gaining more and more choices with every new book that comes out. One does not need to look too far to find examples of Pathfinder characters that abuse the RAW (“rules as written”) to egregious degrees.
But the real problem isn’t with the (rather self-evident) fact that a huge and continuously-growing body of rules can be exploited. Rather, it’s about the line of thinking that this encourages. Seeing the rules as limits encourages pushing against those limits, which means that when these limits are dialed back in order to allow for greater freedom in building your character – such as when using Eclipse – the credo of “optimization in excess” will drive a player to actively try and be disruptive with the character they make.
Saying “I think point-buy is unbalanced” is another way of saying “I think that this much freedom invites abuse.” But when we’re talking about yourself and your game group, that actually means “I don’t trust these guys, or even myself, to not try and break the game.”
Having said all of that, there’s one further point to consider…
3) NOT everything is on the table. One thing that should be made clear right from the get-go when using Eclipse, or any point-buy system, is that not everything in the book is going to be available. Page 197 has a checklist of what options will be modified or disallowed in a particular campaign, and a wise GM will avail themselves of it. Likewise, page 163 discusses mechanisms for what a GM can do if a player-character insists on going out of control.
Overall, if the players are focused on building characters that they find fun and interesting, fit reasonably well with the other PCs and with the game world, and work within the rules instead of trying to break them, then there shouldn’t be a problem.
So with all of that said, let’s look at how at how to build a character in Eclipse that helps to bridge Pathfinder’s caster-martial disparity.
Here’s a quick primer for how Eclipse functions. At each level, characters a d4 Hit Die and skill points equal to their Intelligence bonus for free. Everything else, from larger Hit Dice to Base Attack Bonus to spellcasting, costs Character Points. A character receives 24 Character Points per level, including for level 0 (so a 1st level character starts with 48 CP).
What makes Eclipse truly flexible is that anything bought with CP can have a weakness introduced to it in exchange for either a discount on its cost or an increase in its power. A modest weakness (“corruption”) is worth a one-third CP discount, or a x1.5 multiplier in power. A severe weakness (“specialization”) is worth a one-half CP discount, or a x2 multiplier in power.
What degree of compensation a weakness is worth – e.g. if it’s enough to count as corruption or as specialization – is something that should be worked out ahead of time between the player and the GM. In many cases, it will be fairly self-evident (or even mentioned outright in Eclipse), but in others there will need to be an agreement reached as to how much a particular weakness is worth.
It’s important to remember that in the course of reaching such an agreement, both the player and the GM will need to consider the impact on both the player, and the overall campaign. The player will naturally try to downplay their weakness as much as possible, but at the same time should expect that the GM will bring it into play. Likewise, the GM will try to make sure that that weakness does come up over the course of the game – it wouldn’t be worth the discount otherwise! – but will not do so to the point that the player feels unfairly punished.
To put it another way, both the player and the GM should make a good faith effort to keep the PC’s weaknesses interesting and relevant, without being punitive.
A Bigger, Better Martial
The following is a martial character, built using the Eclipse rules, designed around the following ideas that were kicked around on the Paizo message boards:
- The character should be flat-out better at martial combat than other character classes. They should be devastating on the battlefield.
- Resistance to magic. Martial characters should shrug off magical powers and attacks without undue difficulty.
- Leadership. Martial characters should be able to field more, and/or better, minions than a caster can achieve with summon or charm spells.
- Command in combat. Martial characters should be able to effectively direct others in a fight.
- Movement options. Martial characters should not be effectively left behind when casters gain the ability to fly, teleport, etc.
- Out of combat influence. Martial characters should not lose effectiveness outside of a fight. Instead, they should be able to rally the people, without needing magic to do it.
- They need to stand up to punishment. Martial characters should not be able to be taken out of a fight easily. Killing them in combat should be damned difficult.
With those guidelines in mind, let’s take a look at the Combatant.
What follows is a 20-level “class” build using the Eclipse rules. There’s no breakdown of what powers are gained at what level, since using a point-buy system means that you can purchase various abilities when you want them (though some do have prerequisites and guidelines as to when they can be used). Instead, this presents several suites of powers, bought with 20 levels’ worth of Character Points.
As this is a “class” rather than a fully-developed character, what follows doesn’t take into account any other sources of Character Points. The feat that a character gains every other level (which is worth 6 CP in Eclipse), for instances, is not taken into account here. Neither is character races, wealth-by-level, or any other “non-class” factors. Only character levels are taken into account…with two exceptions.
Available Character Points: 504 (level 20 base) + 20 (restriction) = 524 CP.
The first exception is that this class utilizes a restriction (p. 17). A restriction is exactly what it sounds like, a prohibition on taking/engaging in something. In return for this, the character gets 1 additional CP per level. The Combatant’s restriction is against taking any magic progressions (pg. 11-15).
This may seem slightly underhanded, since that’s something we were going to do anyway, but offering a reward for sticking to a particular character concept is part of the game. Hence why Pathfinder characters receive favored class bonuses.
Speaking of which, the second exception is that this character will take a package deal (p. 18). In this case, he’ll be taking the Pathfinder package deal that I’ve mentioned before. This doesn’t really change any aspect of building this particular “class,” but rather guarantees under the game rules that any character built this way will use the Pathfinder differences over the default 3.5 assumptions (e.g. their race will have a net +2 modifier to ability scores, will gain a favored class bonus each level, etc.). This also presumes that you’ll use the Pathfinder feat progression (e.g. +6 CP at every odd-numbered level, rather than every third level) and get an additional 6 CP at 1st level (for starting traits, which we’re also not factoring in here).
Basic Abilities (330 CP)
- Light, medium, and heavy armor proficiency, plus proficiency with shields (18 CP), all with the smooth modifier, specialized for one-half cost/only to remove the armor check penalties (9 CP).
- Proficient with all simple and martial weapons (9 CP).
- Self-Development/+6 Con for calculating hit points only (36 CP).
- +20 BAB (120 CP).
- Fort +12, Ref +12, Will +12 (108 CP).
- Fast Learner, specialized for double effect/only for skills (6 CP).
- Self-Development/+4 Int for calculating skill points only (24 CP).
For many, if not most characters, their basic abilities – proficiencies, Hit Dice, BAB, base saves, and skill points – will be where they spend the bulk of their Character Points. That’s true for the Combatant as well, but we’re utilizing some different methods of buying these things up more cheaply than normal as cost-saving measures.
Their weapon proficiencies, Base Attack Bonus, and base save bonuses are all purchased normally. Note that the Combatant has all good saves; the better to overcome magic with!
For their armor proficiencies, we’ve taken the Smooth modifier. This allows a character to ignore armor check penalties and arcane spell failure chances. However, since we don’t care about arcane spell failure (since this character won’t be casting spells), we’ve specialized that to cut the cost in half. This way, the Combatant’s skills won’t suffer for his wearing armor.
Insofar as his skills go, we’re giving him 4 skill points per level here, using two options. The first is to buy a sort of “virtual” +4 to his Intelligence score, but only for the purpose of gaining skill points each level. This +4 bonus is not counted for any other effect, such as when making skill checks on Int-based skills, calculating how much Int damage he can take before falling unconscious, etc. That’s 2 skill points per level right there.
The second method is via Fast Learner. This ability normally grants 1 additional CP per level when taken, but in this case we’ve specialized it to grant 2 CP…but only for skill points. Since 1 CP can directly buy 1 skill point, this essentially means that the Combatant gains 2 skill points for free each level, which with the +4 “virtual” Int bonus given above, the Combatant is gaining 4 skill points per level, as mentioned before.
It’s worth mentioning that no classes means no set list of class skills. Eclipse has some suggestions for this, with the one I go for being to allow twelve skills of the player’s choice as class skills (plus Craft and Profession, since everyone should have those), with Perform being one skill while each Knowledge skill is separate. For the Combatant, his class skills will be Acrobatics, Climb, Craft, Diplomacy, Intimidate, Knowledge (dungeoneering), Knowledge (local), Perception, Perform, Profession, Ride, Sense Motive, Survival, and Swim.
Finally, the Combatant’s Hit Dice aren’t being bought up, meaning that he’s only gaining a d4 Hit Die per level. However, much as we did for his Intelligence-based skill points, we’re adding a “virtual” +6 to his Constitution bonus, giving him a “free” +3 hit points per die. Or, in other words, the Combatant’s Hit Dice are 1d4+3+Con bonus per level.
This grants, on average, 5.5 hit points per level, exactly as if the Combatant had a d10 Hit Die. Moreover, this is before adding in his (real) Constitution bonus, any Con-boosting items, etc. We’re essentially trading in never getting any high rolls on a d10 for never getting any low rolls either. Since buying up Hit Dice at each and every level is expensive, this saves quite a few Character Points overall for the same general outcome.
Magic Breaker (59 CP)
- Improved Spell Resistance, corrupted for two-thirds cost/must not be helpless, does not need to take an action to allow friendly spells in (12 CP).
- Finesse/use Strength bonus to calculate how many attacks of opportunity the character receives (6 CP).
- Reflex Training/Combat Reflexes variant (6 CP).
- Block (arcane) with Multiple (12 CP).
- Luck with +4 Bonus Uses, specialized for one-half cost/only for saves, corrupted for two-thirds cost/only against magical effects (4 CP).
- Returning, corrupted for two-thirds cost/only to overcome petrification and polymorph after 2d4 rounds (4 CP).
- 2d6 mana with Resilience (12 CP).
- Rite of Chi, specialized for one-half cost/requires eight hours of sleep (3 CP).
This suite of powers, together with their base save bonuses, comprise the Combatant’s incredible resistance to magical attacks.
The first bullet point notes that the Combatant has Spell Resistance equal to his character level +10. However, it only functions when the Combatant isn’t helpless; in exchange for this, they do not need to take an action to lower their SR to allow spells that they want to affect them to bypass SR. The narrative function of this effect is that the Combatant is literally batting away, dodging, or otherwise physically defeating/avoiding spells he doesn’t want to affect him.
The second and third bullet points allow for the Combatant to use a number of AoO’s in a round equal to 1 + his Strength bonus. These are largely to set up the Block ability listed in the fourth bullet point. Twice per round, at the cost of an AoO each time, the Combatant may try to actively block a single-target spell directed at him with a DC 20 Reflex save. On a successful save, the spell deals 60 less points of damage than it otherwise would. If successfully blocking a spell that isn’t a damage-dealing effect, then he gets a +8 bonus on his saving throw against the spell’s effect instead.
Note that the DC of the Reflex save made to block an attack can be increased by the attacker. The spellcaster can decrease their BAB on the spell’s attack roll to add to the block DC on a 1:1 basis. If the spell doesn’t use an attack roll, then they can do this for the spell’s save DC instead (e.g. if casting a spell that would have a DC 24 save, then can lower that by 2 points to increase the block DC by 2 points).
The Luck power allows the Combatant to, up to five times per day, either preemptively treat a saving throw as if he’d rolled a 20, or re-roll a failed save. This can only be done against a magical effect.
Returning is normally an “overcome death” power. In this case, it’s been corrupted to only allow the Combatant to defeat petrification and polymorph, two effects that normally take characters completely out of a fight (and indeed, last perpetually unless something actively undoes them). In this case, they’ll bounce back fairly quickly, but determined enemies will still be able to kill them in the meantime if they really try.
Finally, the seventh and eighth bullet points grant the Combatant 2d6 mana points. These points can be spent to defeat ability damage/drain on a 1:1 basis, defeat negative levels on a 2:1 basis (e.g. 2 points of mana defeats 1 negative level), or may defeat mind-affecting effects at a cost of 2/3/4/6 points to overcome a level 0-3/4-6/7-8/9 effect. Mana normally recovers at a rate of 1 point per day, but Rite of Chi allows for an additional 1d6 to be recovered after eight hours’ rest (for 1d6+1 altogether).
Mobile Warrior (39 CP)
- Reflex Training/may move up to their speed before making a full attack action (6 CP).
- Celerity/flight plus 40 ft. of flight movement, all specialized for one-half cost/only for 1 minute per point of Con bonus (minimum 1 min.) per day (18 CP).
- Inherent Spell with one instance of Advanced, both specialized for one-half cost/only as prerequisites (6 CP). One further instance of Advanced (teleport track) with +2 Bonus Uses (9 CP).
This package of abilities is designed to overcome the major limitations on the Combatant’s movement. Reflex Training allows for a specific action to be taken in conjunction with another specific action. In this case, when taking a full attack action, the Combatant may move up to their speed immediately beforehand. Note that this cannot be interspersed with attacks during a full attack action; it must be a move, which is then followed by a full attack.
Celerity allows the combatant to fly at a speed of 60 ft. with perfect maneuverability for a number of minutes per day equal to their total Constitution bonus. This is not inherently magical, but otherwise leaves the explanation for what this power is up to the player (personally, I prefer the idea that the Combatant is literally kicking the air to move themselves around).
Finally, three times per day the Combatant may use teleport track as a spell-like ability. This is a custom spell designed for this particular power, meaning that we don’t need to be concerned with the full specifics of the spell. Essentially, it’s a 5th-level effect (like the spell teleport) that can only be used to follow another teleportation effect used within 20 ft. of the combatant in the last 3 rounds. The Combatant can also bring along one additional willing creature per three levels. Unlike most of these powers, this one has an inherent limit on when it can be taken; the combatant must be at least 9th level to take this power.
Famous Hero (18 CP)
- Major Privilege/hero of the realm (6 CP).
- Improved Superior Reputation (12 CP).
These powers cover the Combatant’s social influence. Like most social-focused abilities, they’re necessarily imprecise in terms of what they connote. For the first one, having a major privilege (which, in this case, is that the Combatant is widely recognized as a hero of the land) essentially means that the character is regarded as being a cross between a rock star and a war hero. For the second, it means that the character’s fame and deeds are widely known; when it becomes relevant, they gain a (level x 2)/3 modifier to checks on social rolls (e.g. a bonus to Diplomacy checks for people who like him, and a bonus to Intimidate checks for those who dislike him, and vice versa).
Leader of Men (36 CP)
- Leadership with Born Leader and Emperor’s Star (18 CP).
- Mystic Artist/Perform (oratory) (6 CP) with Rapid (6 CP).
- Reflex Training/activating Mystic Artist abilities (6 CP).
These powers reflect the Combatant’s ability to take command in battle (though they can do the same in other situations).
Their Leadership power means that they have (level + Cha modifier)x3 levels’ worth of followers, none of which can be higher than the Combatant’s level -3. Moreover, each of these followers has a permanent +1 typeless bonus to their attacks, saves, and AC. They also gain a 6 CP ability (which must be the same for every follower). I’d recommend granting them the Legionary power (everyone with that gains a +1/+2/+3 bonus to attacks, AC, and Reflex saves when fighting with 1-2/3-4/5+ others who also have this power, specialized for double effect/must be adjacent to each other).
The second and third bullet points allow the Combatant to essentially usurp some of a bard’s role, and use Perform (oratory) to direct and guide those they fight with. Thanks to Reflex Training, this may be activated as a free action, and the effects happen immediately. The actual effects they might choose (it’s not a static set of abilities, meaning that there are too many possible choices to list here) are found on pg. 85-87. I recommend that they take their abilities primarily from the Inspiration powers; using Mass Greatness or Mass Excellence to empower your allies will quickly change the tide of battle to your favor (and if you can take Harmonize, from the Synergy list of powers, and use both at the same time, your party will be very nearly unstoppable!).
Unstoppable Juggernaut (42 CP)
- Stoic with Ferocity (9 CP).
- Grant of Aid with Mighty and Spark of Life (15 CP).
- Luck with +4 Bonus Uses, specialized for one-half cost/only for attack rolls (6 CP).
- Enhanced Strike/crushing and whirlwind (12 CP).
Here we come to the Combatant’s ability to deal out and withstand staggering degrees of damage. Stoic makes the Combatant immune to death from massive damage as well as lets them be treated as “recovering with help” on a successful DC 15 Constitution check to stabilize. The Ferocity modifier means that the character may continue to act normally while at negative hit points, so long as their negative hit points do not exceed their Constitution score.
Having Grant of Aid with the Mighty modifier allows the combatant to heal themselves of damage (which does not require an action). Once per day per three levels (or part thereof), the Combatant may heal 1d8+5+Con bonus hit points OR 1d3+1 ability score damage OR 2 negative levels. Moreover, Spark of Life makes it so that the Combatant can cling to life for (Con score x 5) rounds when their hit points drop low enough to kill them (e.g. their negative hit points equal or exceed their Con score), during which time they can be healed normally. This doesn’t apply if they’re brought down to negative hit points that equal or exceed their positive hit points (or an instant death effect is used, such as a successful coup de grace).
Exactly what the healing from Grant of Aid represents is up to the player. It could be the blessing of a deity, hyper-regeneration, unparalleled physical fortitude, or something else altogether.
The Luck power, similar to its use in the Magic Breaker suite, allows the Combatant to either gain an automatic “natural” 20 on an attack roll (meaning a possibility for a critical hit, if confirmed) or may re-roll a failed attack roll, up to five times per day.
Their Enhanced Strike abilities grant them two combat powers. Crushing allows the Combatant, as a full-round action, to combine all of their attacks into a single attack roll. If successful, he inflicts all of the damage from his multiple attacks at once. Whirlwind allows the Combatant, as a full-round action, to make a single attack at his full BAB against every target within reach.
Both of these attacks may be used once per minute each. However, additional uses within that period may be undertaken, at the cost of 1 point of mana (q.v.) each time. Essentially, these are the “super attacks” that a Combatant has, allowing him to push beyond what an ordinary fighter would be able to do.
Overall, the Combatant is a class that builds a solid base for a martial character, while paying special attention to various situational and out-of-combat circumstances. While he has several abilities that directly enhance his ability to fight (e.g. Luck for attack rolls, Enhanced Strike, Grant of Aid), he can also maintain his usefulness in unorthodox battles via his special movement abilities and (indirectly) his followers and ability to direct others.
His major suite of powers, however, all deal with his ability to shrug off magic. These are so many and so varied that it’s very hard to affect the Combatant with magic at all, as he can resist it, block it, save against it, heal it, or otherwise defeat it. This is a character that has very little to fear from spellcasters.
Finally, he has several abilities that boost his ability to play a role outside of a fight. His social abilities ensure that he essentially always is exceptionally popular among the populace (though this is not a magical effect, and the player and the GM should work together to determine why this is and how it manifests) and has a powerful reputation to help him with any face-to-face encounters.
And of course, this isn’t the whole of what the Combatant can do. As mentioned previously, he still has 60 Character Points’ worth of feats to spend, plus 6 CP on top of that from his starting traits. Throw in things like a human racial bonus feat or some Eclipse-specific things like taking a few disadvantages (pg. 18-20) or having some duties (p. 17) to fulfill, and there’s still a lot of room for customization (and that’s not even getting into what gear he has).
Of course, that’s overlooking the fact that, as a point-buy character, this entire build can be customized anyway. If you don’t care about spell resistance, for example, but want more of an AC bonus. You can just not buy Improved Spell Resistance and spend the 12 CP on Defender (p. 51), gaining a level-based bonus to your Armor Class.
Since using this book, I’ve found it much easier to build the character I’d like to have, instead of having to check myriad sourcebooks to kludge together a combination of classes, feats, archetypes, prestige classes, and other rules in hopes of approximating my original idea for a character…especially for a martial character that can be as effective, and as useful, as a spellcaster.
With Eclipse, the caster-martial disparity matters exactly as much as you want it to.