Saturday, January 8, 2011

First Impressions of Pathfinder: The Character

For part 1 of this series, click here. Turns out, I lied a little about picking up where I left off (with Druids). First I'll set the stage. After going months without playing D&D with my original gaming group, I have been making plans for some 4e games. Because of schedules, right now only a 1 shot is in the works. Turns out though, they've been playing Pathfinder regularly while I've been out of town, and I broke down and decided I'd give it a shot. After all, they described it as having fixed everything that was wrong with 3.5. Well, we'll see about that. I wonder if a taste of CoDzilla will teach them a lesson (in what few high level games we played, nobody ever rolled a Cleric or Druid, so I'm not really even sure if they're aware of the problem with them).

Unfortunately, the DMs were rotating and the new DM decided to start everyone at level 1. So much for making the 1 man version of an adventuring party. Still, I did my homework on Pathfinder just so I knew what I was getting myself into. Turns out, CoDzilla has for the most part been slain.

The Druid's Wild Shape is an odd middle ground between 3.x (where you essentially became a monster stat block) and 4e (where you keep your own stats and movement modes, but you gain access to beast form powers): You keep your stats, but gain the new forms movement modes (sort of), attacks, AC, and some other bonuses depending on size and level. The end result is that you're effective in melee while Wild Shaped...only if you're built to melee in humanoid form and sacrifice your spells. Uhhhh...ok, that's lame, 4e preserved the feel of Wild Shape (flinging spells as humanoid, being a melee character while Wild Shaped) without making it overpowered. Pathfinder may have reigned in the power level of Wild Shape, but they sacrificed some of the ability's "essence." Would it have been that hard to let you substitute Wis for Str while making attacks? You'd still be using your stats. Whatever. In any case, the alternative is being a full caster and using Wild Shape to turn into a bird and fly around casting spells (because you will pick up Natural Spell). Well, that's what I decided to go with.

Now we come to the Animal Companion. I stopped playing Druids in 3.5 because the DM always went straight for my companion and killed it as fast as he could. He said, "don't have it rush into melee if you don't want it to get hurt!" Well, what am I supposed to do, have it hang back and waste a class feature? As angry as I was about him "screwing me" at the time, I realize that it's more a design flaw than anything (but I still think he was screwing me a little bit too). I'd have to spend the next 24 hours calling a new companion, or else live with not having one for a while. Talk about a buzz kill. Fast forward to the release of Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms, and we get a 4e Druid that gets an animal companion! Best part is, it can be revived whenever you want, for the cheap price of 1 minor action and 1 healing surge! Sure, the healing surge mechanic doesn't exist in 3.x so the animal companion couldn't work like this...but then that's just another reason to prefer 4e, isn't it? Now, some might call this an example of gamism (4e) vs simulationism (3.x), but is it really that unrealistic (from a fantasy standpoint, mind you) for a Druid who has bonded him/herself to a specific animal to be able to heal that animal (using his/her own surges, albeit) at-will? Such a Druid can already heal allies! Just say it's the same type of healing magic, but since the Druid and companion share a magical bond it eats up the Druid's own healing surge. It's elegant, and allows the companion to act like a damage sponge without being at risk of disrupting adventuring. And such a damage sponge mechanic is a unique contribution to the party, and offers an interesting way to "lead."

I've been playtesting the Sentinel, so I thought about this as I was building my Pathfinder Druid. I couldn't go back to the "old way" of doing animal companions. I opted to pick up the Cleric domain instead. I wouldn't have a melee buddy/tank to protect me and flank with me, but I'd get a few extra domain spells to use per day, plus extra domain spell slots. At this point I'd like to take a moment to commend Pathfinder, because they did add a mechanic that really helps casters out at low levels. Clerics (and Druids who choose them instead of the companion) get Domains, Sorcerers get bloodlines, and Wizards get school specializations. All of these class features grant a choice, each of which offers a minor spell that you can cast a number of times per day equal to 3 + relevant ability mod. That's a good number of rounds where you would normally have to pull out a crossbow/sling/javelin and ineffectually pelt enemies because you're out of spells. It's vaguely reminiscent of 4e's at-will mechanic, though obviously it's much more limited since it's still "Vancian" at its core. So Pathfinder did patch the weakness of casters at low levels. They're still not as balanced as 4e casters/non-casters, but it's manageable. From what I've heard, however, high level casters do still dominate non-casters, though perhaps not to such an extent.

Another fun aspect of the Druid class is spontaneous casting, which is the ability to turn any prepared spell into Summon Nature's Ally on the fly. Which is sweet, because summoning is awesome, especially for a Druid who opted to give up the animal companion. It's a source of extra damage, and it's a great source of ally-friendly action denial in this game (enemies beating on summons aren't attacking allies, and you don't even lose healing surges because this game doesn't have them!). This is why I love the Druid's spontaneous casting more than the Cleric's; a Druid prevents damage (equal to the summoned creature's HP + however much damage the attack overshot it by), whereas the Cleric repairs it (with the Cure spells). Plus the Druid gets to deal damage while it's doing this, and it feels more "active." Plus the Druid can just grab a wand of whatever Cure he can afford and be able to patch up his allies just fine. So clearly I like the idea of summoning in Pathfinder/3.x, but there's a catch. You have to reference monster stat blocks all the time. Which you already sort of have to do with Wild Shape. And since I hate looking crap up in the limited supply of books at the table, I'm going to have to either copy a bunch of stat blocks down by hand, or make some kind of electronic cheat sheet using the SRD. Plus I have to do that for all of the spells that I think I'll use regularly. I'll admit that this is a problem with 4e, too, as I write out power cards on index cards by hand. But at least those are concise. A lot of Pathfinder spells, like 3.x spells, are walls of text.

To sum up the 1st level Druid I created, it seems like it'll be a fun character. Pathfinder did make an attempt to balance out the classes, but in doing so made some design choices that don't appeal to me. It annoys me that for full casters, using Wild Shape to fight in melee is not viable. Most of the time. I did manage to get around this, by picking up Weapon Finesse. Seeing as I'm Dex secondary, I can at least hit with my natural attacks, even if they won't be quite so damaging. And since I'm an elf, the feat also helps me hit with the rapier that I carry around for when I run out of spells.

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