Archive for October, 2010

The Princess and the PC

October 12, 2010

Earlier today I was browsing and came across an article entitled 9 Disney Combat Princesses. It assigns D&D classes to the heroines from nine Disney films, and briefly explains what traits they have that mark them as members of that class.

It’s a fun article to read, since putting a new spin on established characters is a fun way to make the familiar new again (and indeed, as some of the comments on the article point out, reinterpreting fairy tale princesses has been done before, such as in Vertigo Comics’ Fables or Jim C. Hines’ Princess Series of novels). Of course, being a tremendous geek, what I took away from the article was a desire to adopt the themes it dealt with into Pathfinder at large.

Meet the PCs for your next Pathfinder campaign.

The conclusion I came to was ironic, in that I eventually realized I needed to approach the topic from the exact opposite point that the article had. 9 Disney Combat Princesses was concerned with putting character classes – with the attendant combat prowess, whether with swords, spells, or skills – to women who are (with a few notable exceptions) of fairly non-combative dispositions.

Female PCs in a Pathfinder game, however, are adventurers right alongside their male counterparts. They have the same character classes, the same skills and feats, the same equipment – there’s no difference between them and male PCs save for how they’re role-played.

What’s needed are ways to make a female PC a bit more like a Disney Princess.

Now, at this point, I suspect that some of my readers are scratching their heads and wondering “why would I want my female PC to be like a Disney Princess at all?” That’s a good question, and while I could spend a few paragraphs going over the specific role-playing qualities that being a princess would add to the character, the short answer is that it’s fun. The same way that adding martial qualities to a “typical” princess makes the character more multi-faceted, the same is true for adding the qualities of a princess to your badass warrior woman (or whatever sort of adventuring girl you play).

So then, what are the qualities of a princess in general (and a Disney Princess in particular)?

  • Comeliness – while it may be shallow, it’s a truism that a princess is beautiful. Whether she’s “the fairest of them all” or simply a pretty girl, all princesses outwardly reflect their inner benevolence. In game terms, this usually means having an above-average Charisma score (at least a 12, if not more) – while Charisma has attempted to shake off its connotations as being the score related to physical appearance, we still can’t help but think of it that way. And hey, even leaving aside questions of beauty, aren’t princesses also charismatic?
  • Royalty – This one seems like a no-brainer. After all, being a princess means being the daughter of a monarch and in line for the throne, right? Well, usually…but as it turns out, not always. Some of the Disney Princesses (e.g. Cinderella, Belle) aren’t ever shown to be of noble breeding; rather, they’re princesses by virtue of (presumed) marriage – the men they get involved with, and supposedly wind up happily ever after with, are princes. Hence, a princess can be a princess by birth or by marriage. In game terms, this can be tricky to pull off. Nobility is generally consigned to the aristocrat NPC class, which isn’t fit for a PC. On the other hand, this can just as easily be relegated to a purely role-playing device, with the player simply noting that the character is of royal blood without needing it represented in game terms at all. As we’ll see later, there’s at least one way of reconciling these two approaches.
  • Empathy – Princesses are notably in touch with the feelings of those around them; more specifically with grumpy but good-hearted people, or with small woodland creatures. Oftentimes they’re the only one with the ability or the desire to relate to someone who is otherwise an outcast in a particular community or culture. Never ones to judge on appearances or reputation, princesses are emotionally sensitive people (though when they sense that someone is a genuinely bad person, they react appropriately). In game terms, this is generally typified as a high Sense Motive skill, and quite likely also a high score in Diplomacy (to get that grouchy beast or disinterested prince to respond to them). Or if focused on animals instead of people, ranks in Handle Animal (and possibly wild empathy).
  • That Special Something – corny as that header may be, there’s something else about a princess (certainly a Disney Princess) that’s difficult to put into words; a je ne sais quoi that’s definitely there even if we can’t properly define it. It’s something about them that borders on being mystical, even though there’s no hint of magical ability. In game terms, this is what’s different about the character beyond her ability scores, class levels, and skills. It’s that she’s so pretty that she has a sanctuary effect that makes people not want to attack her, or that she’s so caring that she affects people as per calm emotions, all without knowing any spellcasting or even being aware of what she’s doing – usually because she has a particular feat that makes this possible. This is the quality that makes her a princess, and not just a girl who happens to be royalty.

The above are some good guidelines for making a princess character straight out of the Core Rules. However, if you want to go beyond general suggestions and find some game mechanics that are more apropos for a princess PC (particularly in regards to that last quality outlined above), then the following are some good resources to look into.

Kobold Quarterly #2Kobold Quarterly #2 has a great article titled “Joining the Noble Classes.” Written by veteran game designer Jeff Grubb, this article – written for v.3.5 but 100% compatible with Pathfinder – talks about creating game effects for having a character join the realm’s nobility. This is done largely by way of “virtual” aristrocrat levels which the kingdom’s ruler can bestow on a PC. While not quite appropriate for a 1st-level character, imagine a princess PC who starts with a few virtual aristrocrat levels backing up her PC class levels. This is a great article unto itself, and is an excellent method for giving your character the mechanics that go with having the background of a princess without it eating into the levels you want her to have.

Once Upon a TimeAlthough written for d20 Modern, Once Upon a Time, published by Avalon Game Company, has several great mechanics for a princess PC.

Foremost among these are the feats it offers. While there are only a few, they hit some of the most quintessential princess features. Magical Gift, for example, lets you sing to summon woodland creatures exactly like Snow White.

There’s also the fair maiden advanced class (prince charming if you’re a man who takes levels in it). This requires a bit more work to translate over from d20 Modern, but does a good job of hitting a number of princess high points. Skill bonuses and bonus feats make up the lower levels, but at higher levels a fair maiden’s kiss can have magical effects. It doesn’t get more princess-y than that.

Free20: TroublemakerPart of a series of free products, Free20: Troublemaker presents a template for a certain character-type; in this case, that of the plucky but inexperienced young girl out to prove herself.

This sort of character, one who’s eager for external validation (usually by winning a fight), prone to bouts of recklessness, and insecure around older/prettier/more experienced women, doesn’t seem, at first glance, to quite fit in with the qualities of a princess that we outlined above. After all, when’s the last time you saw a Disney Princess feel threatened by another woman, and so rush into battle to try and show her worth?

However, the disparity here is easily resolved by remembering two important key details. The first is that this template represents a more modern take on the idea of an empowered woman (or in other words, “girl power”); whereas the traditional Disney Princess gains confidence in herself by facing social adversity, recent “princesses of pop culture” go through the same struggle by facing more literal battles – this character is more Ahsoka than Ariel.

That brings us to our second salient point: your princess character is still a Pathfinder character. That means she’s going to get into fights, take damage, and kill things. That doesn’t exactly mesh with the Disney Princess-image now, does it? This template is a good guide (both in characterization and game mechanics) for showcasing how you can reconcile those disparities.

Finally, one more resource is an article by Rich Burlew (of Order of the Stick fame) titled “The Fey Druids.” While meant for druid characters specifically, it presents a handful of feats that grant a druid more fey (that is, supernatural and intuitive) abilities. This can be useful if your princess is a druid, but you want her to have an otherworldly-but-still-natural slant, rather than being a worshipper of nature.

Ultimately, of course, there are a lot of ways to play a female character in a Pathfinder game. From a musclebound amazon barbarian to a seductive sorceress to a fighter who’s really not any different from a male character in the same profession, your character concept can be anything you want.

Hopefully, however, this article has provided you with some good ideas and resources for playing a character that’d fit right in alongside the likes of Jasmine, Pocahontas, Mulan, and their friends. Next time you sit down to the game table, be the princess instead of the guy looking to rescue one.

…and if you are that guy, just remember: she’s in another castle.

The Bard: Not it’s Best Performance

October 5, 2010

Lately, I’ve been examining the bard’s class abilities, and I’ve started to realize that I don’t like some of the design assumptions that have gone into the class.

The bard: missing its mojo since 1E.

Now, bards have long had a reputation as being “the sucky class.” From what I’ve heard, they were highly regarded back in First Edition as being a true jack-of-all-trades, but from Second Edition onward their propensity to be a class that dabbled in many fields but mastered none of them has been crippling rather than empowering. There are, I think, specific reasons for that, and specific fixes for how to make the bard badass again, but that’s beyond the scope of this blog post.

No, this blog post is about the nature of the bard as a performer.

She’s A Nonuple Threat!

The bard, as it appears in Pathfinder, seems to be written under the assumption that the character will want/need to take skill ranks in multiple types of Perform. This is something I have a problem with, as we’ll discuss below.

The Perform skill as written has nine major subsets; act, comedy, dance, keyboard instruments, oratory, percussion instruments, string instruments, wind instruments, and sing. While it certainly makes sense to have a bard character that takes ranks in more than one of these, most of the bards I’ve seen have been fairly tightly focused – the bard in my current Pathfinder game, for example, has taken Perform (sing) and nothing else.

Examining it further, there’s plenty of reason to take only a single iteration of Perform. Beyond the obvious conservation of skill points (e.g. every rank you spend on a second Perform skill is a point that’s not going to Perception, Stealth, or some other relevant skill), it makes little sense to have multiple types of Perform since there’s virtually no situation that’d require one over another – when a situation calls for a Perform check, it usually doesn’t matter what variant of Perform it is.

Also, there are differences between the various types of Perform that, while subtle, may be enough to discourage someone from taking them. The bard in my campaign, for example, chose Perform (sing) because it leaves her hands free to hold a weapon while singing. However, if she were to take Perform (string instruments) then she’d essentially have to give up holding a weapon to use that Perform skill…but she’d be able to use a masterwork instrument for a +2 bonus, something that isn’t available to Perform (sing).

So you see now why there’s a pretty good set of reasons for why a character would want to just pick a single type of Perform and stick with it. And of course, none of that mentions the biggest reason of all: your character concept might be that your character only knows one type of performance.

Too bad a bard isn’t able to do that.

Versatility is a (Literal) Must

Okay, to be fair the Pathfinder bard doesn’t “have” to take more than one type of Perform, but there’s a cost for not doing so – that cost being class abilities that are lost or minimized. Let’s start with one of the simpler functions of the class: versatile performance.

Versatile performance is an ability where you can substitute a type of Perform skill for two specific other skills whenever you’d have to make a check with those skills. For example, if you take versatile performance with Perform (percussion instruments), you can use that skill’s bonus whenever you’d have to make a Handle Animal or Intimidate check.

The draw here is fairly obvious; sinking ranks into a certain type of Perform lets you basically gain free ranks in the two associated skills. Essentially, the bard is encouraged to use this class feature – which is gained at 2nd level and then every four levels thereafter, each time for a different Perform skill – to branch out amongst different Perform types as a method of skill consolidation. In fact, that’s not too bad of a deal. You’re basically tripling up on the function of each Perform type you take (the normal functions, plus the other two skills).

However, there are still some problems here, notwithstanding what I laid out in the previous section. For one thing, the associated skills that versatile performance assigns to each Perform type have some overlap. Each of the nine subsets of Perform associates to two skills, but altogether they only cover eight different skill types. Hence, you need to metagame what Perform skills you take, or you can severely compromise the usefulness of this class feature.

It’s missing the part where it says “…but they really have to work at it.”

For example, if by level 18 you’ve chosen Perform (comedy, keyboard, oratory, sing, and string) as your five versatile performances, then guess what? You’re only using them, collectively, for Bluff, Diplomacy, Intimidate, and Sense Motive. The same usefulness that you could get out of two instances of versatile performance has been stretched out to all five instances of it, with zero net gain.

Contrast this with instead choosing Perform (act, dance, oratory, sing, and string), which instead collectively nets you Acrobatics, Bluff, Diplomacy, Disguise, Fly, Handle Animal, Intimidate, and Sense Motive. That’s twice what you got with the previous choices!

And even then, there’s STILL overlap! There’s no five selections of Perform in versatile performance that don’t result in some of them gaining nothing that you don’t already have. So either way, you’re going to lose out somewhere.

Are you starting to see my frustration with the bard?

By the by, I’m not the first one to have a problem with this particular class feature. Mark Chance of Spes Magna Games wrote an entire product, called Versatile Performance Redux, dedicated to fixing this. It throws out this class ability entirely and replaces it with a better (not perfect, but still better, at least to me) series of abilities.

Visual Songs and Audible Dances

Of course, the problems with versatile performance are tiny compared to the headaches caused by the bard’s main class ability: bardic performance. This one has multiple issues, spread across its various effects.

First, lets look at its lowest-level abilities, countersong and distraction. Both abilities explicitly state which types of Perform they work with, and these lists are mutually exclusive. So right at 1st level, the bard has the screws put to it if it doesn’t have at least two different types of Perform (and, don’t forget, they need to be the right types – if you have Perform (dance) and Perform (oratory), you’re still outta luck).

From there, there’s a disconnect as the Perform skill ceases to have any impact on the bard’s higher-level class abilities. Despite the main Bardic Performance entry saying that the bard is using their Perform skill, none of the higher-level bardic performance abilities use the skill in any regard – in fact, notwithstanding countersong and distraction, a bard doesn’t actually need any ranks in Perform at all!

To be fair, the bard is still clearly doing something – those abilities are noted as having audible components, visual components, or both – but what sort of performance the bard is putting on is unspecified and unimportant, diminishing the value of the Perform skills that the early levels of the class built up so much.

Many or None, But Never One

Looking back over what’s written here, it should be clear that the bard is all over the place regarding their Perform skills. Early class abilities encourage heavy diversification, but the higher-level ones are completely divorced from Perform altogether. So after madly branching out, you’re likely to increase your Perform skills just enough to keep them relevant for countersong, distraction, and whatever associated versatile performances you have, and otherwise ignoring them.

There’s really nothing here for the bard with ranks in just a single type of Perform. I’m pretty much out of luck if I wanted to make a bard who’s focused solely on busting out some dance moves to leave his opponent totally served:

Hopefully, someone will come up with a creative solution for this soon. I can’t wait to play a bard that’s a real Dance Dance Revolutionary.