Clear the Dust

Wow, that’s a lot of dust on the pages here.

*brushes some off*

Haven’t put anything here for nearly four years. Perhaps I should explain why.

My posts suddenly stopped due to Real Life Problems, which is something most if not everyone in our hobbies has run into. Changing jobs, getting married, having kids, moving, that’s all common Real Life Stuff. And in truth, those things are more important than our hobbies. So we put the fun on hold, roll up our sleeves, and get to work. Then we come back.

But my Real Life Problem? It wasn’t actually caused by Real Life. It was caused by my hobby. What do you do when something you enjoy and are passionate about has become harmful to you? What do you do when you realize you’re addicted to the game?

People usually don’t think of someone like me when they hear addict. The term usually brings up images of someone living on the street, strange chemicals coursing through their blood and brain. Or someone who lives in a bar or at the bottom of a bottle. Getting more creative, we might imagine someone of poor judgement who visits a casino so often they lose their house. But we usually don’t imagine a college-educated professional with a steady job, stable personal relationships, and secure finances. But there’s no reason that person can’t be an addict, it just means they are high-functioning or hiding it well. The addiction can still be damaging them, holding back their life from what it could have been.

In 2012, I admitted I was an addict, and shared this with someone I trusted. They encouraged me down paths of recovery, which I am still walking. I initially admitted a single addiction, to pornography. It took about six months for me to admit, to myself let alone others, that I had more addictions. I was addicted to video games, playing hours upon hours in a day when I should have been sleeping, working, or being with my family.

But I was also addicted to other games, call them Tabletop Games for short. Everything from simple board or card games to role-playing games and collectible card games. Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: The Gathering were my big ones. I would devote hours upon hours to these, again when I should have been sleeping, working, or being with people.

I wonder if part of why I fought admitting the game addictions was because I’d never heard of it before. While addiction to pornographic material has been highly studied and is widely known, and video game addiction to the likes of World of Warcraft has gotten attention in the past decade, I’ve never read an article, a news story, or anything else about addiction to a tabletop game. It’s just cards and paper and dice, right? How could that hurt someone? I’m not taking drugs or something. I didn’t think what I was doing could be hurting anyone. I could go without it for a while if I wanted, sure. Surrrrre.

What makes an addiction? Here is a definition I like:

  1. The person needs more and more of a substance or behavior to keep him going.
  2. If the person does not get more of the substance or behavior, he becomes irritable and miserable.

The important thing isn’t what your addiction is. Which substance? Doesn’t matter. The kind of behavior? Not the defining factor. The important thing is what effect is produced in the person. Do they consistently seek out more and more of the thing? What happens to the person when the thing is withheld or unavailable? That is what’s critical, because that is what changes and harms their life.

This definition of addiction leads to a corollary that I found fascinating. The thing or activity is totally interchangeable. You can take pornography, swap it for compulsive gambling, and voila. Still an addiction. Workaholic, drug user, whatever. Get to know someone struggling with alcoholism, and you realize many of their habits and patterns are just the same as my gaming habits. Addictions and addicts are all the same.

This was one of the central tenets of the recovery group I joined, Celebrate Recovery. All addictions have a similar impact on our lives, similar origins and causes, and some similarity in treatment plans. There is of course a lot of variety, recovering from a porn addiction is going to have some serious differences from getting off heroin. But some things will be the same. It started as a coping device, a way out of a stressful situation or to handle a traumatic event. The situation passes, but the coping addiction stays. It increases in priority, pushes other things out of your life. You might be blissfully in denial of any problems at all, or you might admit to yourself on dark nights that it’s all out of control. Either way, you don’t stop doing it easily.

A question that haunted me, and perhaps is why I was in denial for so long, was whether I would have to give up my gaming hobbies entirely. What does an alcoholic do? They get on the wagon and stay there the rest of their life. It’s just too dangerous, too easy to slip back into the old destructive habits. The pornography, that’s simply a destructive thing in any amount. Dropping that has been…simpler. My gaming habits though? Are they really that bad? Are they ALL bad? Is it like drugs where you just drop them and never look back?

Some addictions are to things that aren’t intrinsically bad. A common one is food. It’s possible to be addicted to it, where it is taken to excess and you keep wanting more, hitting point #1 in the definition above. But you can’t just stop eating, that’s kinda fatal. So, find a balance. Easily said.

Well, it took a long time…but I sort of have found balance. Life and time has gone by while dealing with this, and I’ve had to deal with other stresses and problems that helped grow me as a person. I’ve been able to eliminate or address many big stresses in my life, in particular switching to a less stressful job and eliminating a chunk of bad influences from my life. I’ve also been able to be around some good influences, like my wife, bless her patient soul. Oh, and I got kids. First foster care placement was May 2015, and kids change life like nothing else. So I guess…I had to mature a lot.

The new balance isn’t perfect, the whole thing is still an unstable equilibrium that tips to one side or the other at times. But I learned one big secret after kids, I can move the equilibrium point a lot closer to the ‘family’ point of the graph. Then when I dive off toward the ‘gaming’ side, the damage isn’t as bad. Translated, I had to learn that its OK to play a lot fewer games.

In particular, I actively avoid wasting game time on things I don’t enjoy as much, and I have focused on games I get to play with other people. No playing flash games way past my bedtime, if I do that I miss the chance to play a board game with my wife and friends. Protip: find a game your significant other or kids enjoy more than you do (or are better at than you). Yeah this has changed how I enjoy my hobby a lot…but it also means I get to ENJOY my hobby, without it taking over my whole life or choking out other really important things.

So guys…the handful of you I knew in real life and who followed this many years ago, I miss you guys. Sorry for going poof.

But I’m back.


Sword vs Fang

So I recently went and built a Magus character, and went the weird but possibly very fun route of building him around Improved Unarmed Strike and seeking to make him a close-combat beast. I ran into a problem regarding two spells, Magic Weapon and Magic Fang. They both do essentially the same thing, give a +1 enhancement bonus to a weapon for a short time, and have a “Greater” version that gives a bigger bonus with a longer duration. The difference between them? Magic Weapon affects manufactured weapons like daggers and swords, while Magic Fang affects natural weapons like your fists, bites, claws, and the like.

Why this became an issue for me is that the Magus gets Magic Weapon and Greater Magic Weapon on their spell lists, but not Magic Fang. A big part of the character was supposed to be using spells like this to make him a strong attacker, and if he can’t prepare the right spell…kinda a problem. Even more than that, the Magus has a class feature where they can enchant their current weapon in a way that would stack with Magic Weapon/Fang as well as a weapon’s existing bonus, but this feature is also somewhat ambiguous about whether it could affect a ‘natural’ weapon. For a little bit I toyed with grabbing a level or two of Monk, because there’s a special line in Magic Weapon that allows it to affect a Monk’s unarmed strikes. That’s a weird exception, and creates a little overlap between the two spells. It would have worked, but would have spoiled the pureness of my original idea. I eventually got the answer that the Magus class feature should work with any weapon, natural or not, but for Magic Weapon I would need a house rule with my DM. Which I don’t mind doing, and I think a dialogue with the DM to smooth over issues like this is how the game is supposed to work. But it got me wondering…

…why do these different spells exist? I mean, why do we have two of them instead of just one spell? It would remove a lot of rules wondering about that ‘gray area’, and you wouldn’t be a class that has one of them even when you really want the other. Like, Rangers? Yeah they usually have swords and bows, so Magic Fang doesn’t do any good, but Magic Weapon would help a lot. Or my Magus, which is an admittedly odd creation, would it hurt the balance of the universe for him to be able to pump up his own fists?

I am guessing these spells are descendants from an older version of the game, grandfathered in because if the game doesn’t have those spells “Then it isn’t D&D.” But is having that distinction between them really doing anything good for the game? I don’t see it, but I’m a newbie and don’t know as much as I think I do. Anyone out there have an answer?

Chassis expansion, plus spells.

Well, I’ve been a little quiet lately. Went on a bit of a MTG deck-building kick, which didn’t really have interesting things to share here. Plus, haven’t made it to a Pathfinder session in something like a month now. But I did make some more progress on the class chart, it has been massively expanded and barely fits on my screen now. Clicking on the image below will pull up a full-size version.

Off the charts!

Chassis – Proficiencies

To start out, I’ve added a few columns to the leftmost area, which I consider the ‘chassis’ section. I keep on running into more things that seem to fit there and follow regular patterns, and so I’ve now added weapon, armor, and shield proficiency columns.

The weapon column was sort of hard to categorize, even though it seems like the weapon categories of ‘simple, martial, exotic’ would help here a lot of the classes don’t follow that. Martial is for the classes that can use all martial weapons, Simple for the classes that can just use Simple weapons, and then Simple+ if a class could use Simple plus a couple other weapons singled out. Simple- is for the handful of classes that don’t even get the full Simple Weapon list, just a few spelled-out weapons. That’s a lot of variety! There were a couple patterns, the classes with full BAB always had Martial Weapon proficiency, and then a single Medium BAB class got Martial as well. The Simple+ classes were all Medium BAB. A note on the difference between Simple and Martial weapons, is that essentially the damage die goes up a size with Martial, and you may get a better crit multiplier or crit range, and it can have a quality like Trip, Brace, etc. Exotic is usually Martial-weapon level but with an unusual combination of weapon qualities, or else just something rare and exotic to a westerner. The biggest difference is ranged and throwing weapons. The exotic weapon Shuriken can be rapid-fire-thrown without needing the Quick Draw feat. The simple Crossbows take actions to reload without a feat, while the martial Bows do not.

Armor and Shield proficiencies had a bit less variety, or rather the classes actually follow the categories much better. The one class that doesn’t totally follow them is the druid, who just have the rules where they can’t use anything metal. If a class gets Medium or better armor, they always get normal Shield proficiency, though only Fighter gets Tower shields. Not sure that’s much of a boost to them, Tower shields seem really clunky and situational. Also, only two classes, Fighter and Paladin, get Heavy armor, almost making it a superpower. Overall There’s a near-even split between Light and No armor, and between basic Shields and No shields. Looking at it this way, apparently being able to wear armor makes you special and awesome. Maybe that makes some real-world sense, carrying around 30 pound chainmail or 50 pound full plate armor all day is something most people just cannot do. Back in the middle ages this stuff was super-rare, and most folks went into combat with basically really heavy coats on.

I find the proficiencies very interesting, because they are very easy to convert into feats compared to most parts of the chassis. You take one feat to get basic Shield proficiency, then another for Tower Shields. One feat for Light armor, one for Medium, one more for Heavy. One feat is all you need to get all Simple weapon proficiencies, but Martial and Exotic weapons take one feat per weapon and so are a little more complex to figure out. If we consider being proficient with all Martial weapons as 6 feats (the Simple+ classes had between 5 and 7 martial/exotic proficiencies, so all Martial needs to be worth that many feats or more), then the Fighter’s proficiencies are worth a whopping 12 feats! Even to get the weapon and armor selection of the Rogue, a class you wouldn’t think of as having a great weapon selection and indeed often wants use of a weapon they don’t get by default, you would have to spend 7 feats. Apparently proficiencies is a pretty big deal!

One other thing that I realize after looking through this: if the game designer was looking at this data, it might seem ‘obvious’ to them that the Fighter class’ flavor and selling point is that of equipment master. They get the biggest list of weapon proficiencies out there, that’s pretty hard for most classes to get! They get Heavy armor, which hardly anybody gets without shelling out more feats! And they get TOWER SHIELDS, nobody else gets that for free! And then their in-class abilities make them better at wearing that super-heavy armor, and better at…hitting things with a weapon. But, really, I think the ‘Fighter-as-weapon-master’ thing just isn’t visceral enough. If you have to make a chart and talk about game theory to evoke flavor, your class really doesn’t have flavor.


There is now a section of the chart that’s just about spellcasting. It actually surprised me just how many clear-cut categories there were among the spellcasters.

First, there are full-casters that get 9 spell levels, 2/3 casters with 6 spell levels, and 1/3 casters with 4 spell levels. Both of the 1/3 casters have the exact same, well, everything, being Divine casters who know their entire spell list, must prepare spells, and can cast in whatever armor they want. Oh, and they both have full BAB and are mainly combatants who happen to get a little spellcasting at the middle levels. Basically all of the 2/3 casters are medium BAB and are bard-like, in that they have spells and lots of other class abilities that make up their combat power. Its an even split between Arcane and Divine, and Prepared and Spontaneous. They all have the same spells per day progression. The Full casters also have a lot of variety, an even split between Arcane and Divine, and a three-way split with knowing their entire spell list, having a spellbook-type mechanic, or having the 2-spells-a-level restriction. The two classes with very limited spells known are spontaneous casters and get the ‘best’ spells per day progression, all the others are prepared and get about 2 fewer spells per spell level.

How many spell levels a class gets seems to determine many things about the class chassis, its a dominant consideration when figuring out the class. For example, if you’re a full caster you get a good Will save, period. The Arcane full casters are all half BAB classes, and they are the only half BAB classes. Full casters are hard to manipulate, but not very good at the straight-up fighting. If you’re a 2/3 caster you have a medium BAB and at least Light armor proficiency, period. Good scrappers, harassers, maybe even skillmonkeys. The two 1/3 casters are very similar, full BAB, good Fort, martial weapons, shields, and at least Medium armor. Basically Fighters who happen to have some magic instead of feats.

Alright, now to something that bugs me. What’s the deal with Arcane vs Divine? Flavor and storywise they are incredibly different, and I get that and I accept that. But mechanically in the game, I can see all of two things where the distinction matters. Divine casters don’t have spell failure chance in armor, and Divine casters never use a spellbook while Arcane casters never get free knowledge of their entire spell list. While those things are significant…I’m not sure it is worth creating such a distinction over. Look at the Bard and Inquisitor, one Arcane one Divine but in practice they have identical spellcasting abilities and restrictions and their class chassis have 1 save swapped. What’s the point of Arcane/Divine when you have so much overlap? Maybe have Magic is Magic, and each class gets its own flavor? It would allow more diverse flavoring besides ‘my god gives me power’ and ‘garbled latin gives me power’. Okay, end It Just Bugs Me Rant.

Next thing of interest…almost everyone has spells. Of 17 classes, 13 have some form of spellcasting, only 4 do not. Minor side-interest, all 4 of these are from core, there are two other ‘non spellcasting’ classes in Cavalier and Gunslinger, I don’t have them in the table due to lack of familiarity. In any case, there’s a lot more magic going around than I realized. My perception was that magic in D&D worlds was…not rare, but also not something you saw every day or every month. But apparently you can’t do adventuring without lots of magic…and you know, they’re right. In this system either you have some spellcasters, or you have to Use Magic Device a bunch of scrolls and wands you bought from a caster. There’s no real way to do healing, for example, outside of magic. Even those 4 non-spellcasting classes have access to magic, Monks get class features that are sort of very crappy versions of magic, Barbarians get rage powers that are explicitly magical like calling up a swarm of angry dead spirits, and Rogues can get talents that give them a low-level spell one or two times per day. So apparently magic is just everywhere for PCs in this game system. I see D&D/Pathfinder from a game perspective and not a simulation, so in my mind I expect some form of balance between classes. If magic is highly pervasive, any place where magic is taken away I feel there should be both a reason for it and a balancing benefit given in return. Whether that is true or not…not discussing it today.

Okay, wrapping it up here. Comments, how do you guys agree or disagree, and any other interesting trends you see?

Magic Tourney!

(To my D&D/Pathfinder crowd: sorry, nothing for you today)

So I got to go to a little card shop tournament last night since I had the day off. Was Standard, and my first Constructed tournament in quite a few years. I re-tooled an existing deck I had, bought a couple essential cards right before the event began, and had a lot of fun. Also, I lost every match I played. But who’s counting?

This tournament was very tiny, only 8 people which I think is the minimum for an official tournament. But, all the guys who were there were hardcore players, bringing decklists I’d read about on prominent websites, talking about the metagame and this and that. There were a couple of games where my opponent did not play a single non-rare land! This as a contrast to my own deck of nothing but basic swamps. Basically, I was waaay out of my league, my total deck value would probably not hit $50, with everyone else easily topping $100 and quite a few over $200. There were several cards that as it was I just couldn’t afford, and having them in my deck would have greatly improved it. I say all this, and I don’t intend to be ragging on the other players. They were friendly, and serious players simply have to spend lots of money, follow trends and tournament results, and use the “best decks” that are proven at tournaments. They were friendly, a few people I played gave me suggestions for improving my deck after they finished thrashing me.

So, my deck was a home-made contraption that I went with for the two points of cheapness and quickness to assemble. I’ve played it for a while and was mostly familiar with it, so familiarity helps out too. It was mono-black, which first keeps the deck cheap as all multi-color lands are always expensive to find. It also made the deck more consistent. And, my big ace card was Lashwrithe, an equipment that gives a creature +1/+1 for each swamp I have out. Hey look, +4/+4, now I’m bigger than all your guys! And that’s the main plan of the deck: a few small somewhat expendable creatures that pick up a cool piece of equipment that turns them massive. To survive until then, I brought along lots of targeted creature kill and discard. I think I actually frustrated my opponents quite a bit with all the creature kill and discard I was carrying around, I made pretty much every game against me go to 8+ turns where they are probably used to killing or being killed by turn 4 or 5.

But, in the end I lost every match. In 3 of the 4 matches I at least won a single game and made the other guy work for it. I was gratified to be told after one match that my deck was hell to sideboard against. Apparently in the game I beat them, they had sided in a bunch of “kill-all-creatures-in-play” cards thinking I was a creature-heavy very aggressive deck. These then sat in his hand unused because I had crappy creatures not worth using the spell on, even as they beat him to death. This made me feel a bit proud. My decks are my babies, and I love coming up with decks. I’d hate to just take a full decklist from someone else and run with it, where’s the creativity, the spark of life? Granted because I choose this I am playing a “worse deck” objectively, but I have taken high places at several tournaments with “worse decks” just because I knew how to play them well, and the other guy had no idea how to respond.

And this highlights something that I was severely lacking: knowledge of what other people would be playing and how to play against it. Given this popular deck, how does my deck fight it? What’s the important cards to make them discard? What creature kill spells work best? Do they have mass kill and I need to hold back my creatures, or are they probably missing that option and I can fill the field with my minions? I had next to no idea. I was figuring things out on the fly and I think I did decently, but there’s something about foreknowledge and practice. If I took the same deck and played those guys again, I would probably do a bit better because I would understand their playing better. If I got to change things…my sideboard was just about worthless. Assuming I didn’t get bomb cards like Black Sun’s Zenith to put in there, I would put in a mix of the cards that I aaaaaaalmost played, but cut last minute. Maybe swapping them in, I’d see how they really work and get more data for future deck-construction.

So, here’s what I played last night:

23 Swamp
1 Black Sun’s Zenith
2 Diabolic Tutor
1 Phyrexian Obliterator
1 Batterskull
4 Lashwrithe
3 Vault Skirge
3 Reassembling Skeleton
4 Tormented Soul
3 Black Cat
2 Distress
2 Despise
2 Mind Rot
2 Doom Blade
2 Go for the Throat
3 Geth’s Verdict
2 Dismember

2 Distress
2 Mind Rot
1 Geth’s Verdict
2 Doom Blade
2 Carnifex Demon
1 Surgical Extraction
1 Praetor’s Grasp
2 Consume Spirit
2 Skinrender


If I take this to another tournament, here’s what I would like to upgrade it to:

23 Swamp
4 Fume Spitter
2 Hex Paraiste
4 Vault Skirge
4 Reassembling Skeleton
2 Despise
4 Distress
2 Mind Rot
2 Doom Blade
2 Go for the Throat
2 Geth’s Verdict
2 Tragic Slip
2 Black Sun’s Zenith
1 Batterskull
4 Lashwrithe

2 Mind Rot
2 Geth’s Verdict
2 Dismember
2 Black Sun’s Zenith
2 Ratchet Bomb
2 Hex Parasite
3 Bonehoard

Not a lot of changes to my discard or creature kill spells, those served their purpose quite well already. Dumping a lot of the creatures I had and exchanging them for hopefully useful and in many cases cheaper options. Fume Spitter is a creature, but it’s also a kill spell for one black which is very handy against a variety of decks early on. Tragic Slip goes in for Dismember, I found that dinging myself for 4 repeatedly in a single game was just too much. I needed Dismember for situations where I needed to kill 2 creatures for 3 mana, and Tragic Slip does that just as well. I add another Black Sun’s Zenith main and 2 sideboard because it’s probably the “best” card in the deck. Against several decks that pump out lots of tokens, this is the almost the only answer. Almost, because Ratchet Bomb in the sideboard can also wipe out tokens, and sometimes cheap artifacts or enchantments that are causing problems. I also put in Hex Parasite, it’s a cheap creature to carry equipment, but its real purpose is to kill Planeswalkers. Half the decks I played against had them and they were very troublesome. A final thing in the sideboard that is there for a very odd reason is Bonehoard. If my deck had a large creature compliment, these would be almost identical to Lashwrithe in power. I don’t have many creatures though, so they won’t typically be as powerful…except versus another creature heavy deck like a red-green-black concoction I fought. It was the only deck I played that had artifact kill, and that utterly destroyed me. To counter that, I think: overwhelm them with targets! Even if they have 4-6 cards capable of artifact kill, if I give them 8-10 targets something valuable will get through.

I don’t know if I will get to play this ever, just getting 3 more Black Sun’s Zenith and the one more Ratchet Bomb I need will cost $30. But it is a fun experiment, and maybe in a month I’ll get to go back to the same tournament and surprise the guys there.

Grappling with Confusion

I have had a repeated requested from someone to provide an explanation of the Pathfinder grappling rules. They are derived from the 3.5 grapple rules, which are well-known to be a little difficult. I think Pathfinder cleans it up a little bit, but there’s still several paragraphs of rules and it takes quite a few readings through it for the options for grappler and grapple-ee to make sense. But really, that section of the combat rules isn’t everything, as participants in the grapple keep getting different conditions applied to them that give dex penalties, change their AC, etc, so keep the page on status conditions handy too.

Now, at the end of the day, after telling you to read a bunch of stuff…you should ignore that and just use this flowchart (two pages) which gives out all the options and the orders of events and everything you should need. Much simpler that way. Read through the rules and understand how to grapple without the flowchart if you’re building a grapple-based character or you expect it to come up in a game you are GM-ing, but for the base case with nothing fancy that flowchart is all you really need.

Let’s talk about something possibly more interesting: Why use grapple? The rules are a headache so the benefit needs to outweight both picking other options and all your real-life effort to understand the system. The big benefit of using grapple is that your opponent is left with only a handful of actions they are able to take, most movement, attacks, and other special abilities are either prevented or hindered. It can be a great way to take a dangerous enemy out of the fight, occupying all of his actions for a few rounds while your party deals with the rest of the encounter. It’s also a nice way to take foes alive, since one of the options for your actions is pinning the enemy to the ground and tying them up.

To elaborate a little, here are the actions that someone who is being grappled is able to take:

  • Try to take over the grapple, which is a standard action and if you succeed you are still grappled. It works just like initiating a grapple in terms of checks, etc.
  • Try to break the grapple, which is a standard action. If you succeed the grapple is removed.
  • Make an attack or full attack (standard or full-round actions), but only with a light or one-handed weapon, and you take a -2 penalty to your attack roll.
  • Attempt to cast a spell which must not have somatic components (most do), and if the spell has a material component (again, most do) you must already have the components in hand. You must also succeed at a DC 10 + grappler’s CMB + spell level Concentration check or the spell will fail and be wasted.
  • Attempt some other action which does not require two hands free. You cannot use Stealth, and if you gain Invisibility you gain a bonus to the grapple checks but don’t gain the normal benefits.

That is a very short list. And a lot of those possibilities are probably a Bad Idea, like attempting to cast a spell. First, there’s two pretty common things that may keep you from even TRYING to cast the spell, and even then you have to make your Concentration check which is anything but guaranteed. The DC will probably be 20 at minimum for a low-level spell, and if you try to bust out a higher-level spell to save yourself the check just gets harder. Or how about attacking your grappler? I hope you weren’t a two-handed weapon user, because if so you can’t use your main weapon and need to either draw another one (attack of opportunity!) or use your fists (attack of opportunity! unless you have Improved Unarmed Strike). Plus that -2 attack penalty. If you try to break the grapple, you can then use a move action to get out of there (attack of opportunity, probably) and just hope your movespeed is better than the other guy’s, or next turn you go right back in the grapple. That is still probably your best option, break the grapple and try to move where an ally can help you out.

While all this explains why someone grappling you really sucks for you, there is another side to the story: it kind of sucks for the guy grappling you, too. He also gets a very limited set of options in maintaining the grapple, and while they’re much nicer ones than what the victim gets, they still can’t use both hands, and must spend their standard action keeping the grapple going (or move action if they have Greater Grapple). Here’s a list of actions you, the person controlling, can take.

  • Release the grapple as a Free Action. This means you can let go of them, then have your own actions as normal for the round.
  • Maintain the grapple as a Standard Action, with a +5 bonus on the check.
  • As part of maintaining the grapple, move yourself and your victim half your speed.
  • As part of maintaining the grapple, inflict damage to your victim with unarmed strike, natural weapon, light or one-handed weapon.
  • As part of maintaining the grapple, Pin your victim.
  • Tie up your victim, which auto-succeeds if they are pinned or unconscious, or takes a CMB check at -10 otherwise

Some people point at this and say it makes grappling worthless. Sure, you take that one bad guy out of the encounter for a few rounds, but you take YOURSELF out too. You and your victim go into your own little world where everyone else doesn’t exist, and the rest of the encounter can just ignore you. So, sometimes grappling can be a really Bad Idea even if you’re guaranteed to win it against your opponent. If your party is fighting three Trolls, deciding to grapple one of them means the other two just have to split the caster in half instead of thirds when they eat him. Still, for the grapple specialist there are situations where a successful grapple is excellent. As noted above, spellcasters are a particularly good target. It will deny them most of their spellcasting ability, and their Str and Dex are probably low so their CMD will be much easier to beat than a front-line combatant.

Also, grappling is something that has a lot of Feat support in Pathfinder. There’s a dozen or more feats branching from Improved Grapple, allowing a bunch of minor variations like gaining Cover when grappling, being able to Pin opponents larger than you, and Greater Grapple as the crown jewel. That feat changes the action to ‘maintain’ your grapple from Standard to Move, which means you can use it twice in a single round. So you can, say, use your Standard Action to start the grapple against a target, then with your Move Action attempt to Pin them to the ground. From dangerous opponent to almost-helpless in one round!

Another aspect of classes.

Okay, so here’s another part of many 3.5/PF classes that I find interesting and important: Their interaction with Ability Scores. Specifically, how a lot of classes give functionality above and beyond the “default” rules function of an ability score. Simple example: To most classes, Intelligence just interacts with skill points. It doesn’t have any other rules impact. Now look at a Wizard. To them, Int has the same effects as everyone else, PLUS it determines their number and potency of spells. Int is “worth more” to a Wizard, because it gives more mechanical advantage to them than it does by the default rules.

So, how about another table? All the same classes, and a listing of ability scores. The class gets a “Yes” in a column if some part of the class gives an additional mechanical effect to one of their ability scores. So, the Inquisitor class feature where they get Wisdom added to some Knowledge checks would count, but the Bard ability that gives a bonus to the same checks based on your class level would not. This is looking at the base class only, not any archetypes or optional class features like rogue talents.

So, first thing is that Str and Dex get NOTHING. While there are classes that make use of the abilities more than others, there is nothing that gives either an “extra” use. This seems sort of disappointing to me. There’s a big swath of design room in here, and it’s empty. Were the game designers worried that those ability scores were too powerful already, since they are the biggest players in the combat rules? Maybe. Also, Con is only given extra use by the Barbarian. So, all three of the “physical ability scores” are pretty much ignored in here. Most of the classes are all about finding new uses for the “mental ability scores”.

Looking through the rules though, that does make some sense. By default the mental scores impact a lot fewer things, and in particular they don’t have much use during combat. Str affects attack rolls, damage rolls, and a couple skills. Dex affects ranged attack rolls, armor class, Reflex saves, and several skills. Con affects hit points and Fortitude saves. Int just adds to your skill points and a few skills, no real combat impact. Wis applies to Will saves and a few more skill checks, it probably has the greatest combat impact of the mental scores. Cha affects some skill checks, and…nothing. Really, Cha SUCKS by the default rules, which explains why it is the ability most frequently “dumped” when making a character. It may also explain why Cha is the most common ability score to be used for class abilities. It is actually in the rules somewhere that if a character gets some newfangled power and you don’t know what stat to base it on, use Cha. It needs more love!

Now looking for other anomalies, the Fighter and the Rogue have no entries on the table at all! They use the vanilla rules for everything, unlike EVERY other class out there. I’d say that is definitely something to note, it sort of makes them a little more boring. Also, there’s one class with two entries: Clerics use both Wisdom and Charisma. That’s not boring, but is it too exciting? With a couple of Clerics under my belt, as well as from people in my group, I’m a little split on this. You can go ahead and make a perfectly fine Cleric with no Cha at all, but you can’t ignore Wis because your main class feature, spells, just won’t work without a high enough score. Cha is used by just one class feature (Channel Energy) as opposed to Wis being key for several, and it really seems an odd thing to do. Why is this one power, which fluff-wise comes from the same source as all the rest of the class’s stuff, keyed differently? I wonder if it was grandfathered in, in 3.5 the Turn Undead ability that Channel Energy descended from used Cha as well. Back in the mists of time, what caused that? I’m not an old version buff, if anyone happens to know mail me or toss in a comment.

Now, here’s another thing related to all this ability-score talk: There are a few Feats that alter the default function of an ability score. The most recognizable is Weapon Finesse. It takes the melee attack roll bonus away from Str and gives it to Dex. This can have significant implications for building a character focused on Dex, if you are more strapped for good ability scores than for feats you can use this feat to ‘cheat’ and be a decent melee attacker even with a poor Str score. 3.5 had a lot more of this type of feat than PF has, though some of them were perhaps overkill. They all had the end effect of making your character work very different from the garden variety of whatever class you were playing, and having such options is a good thing in my book. I wish there were more available than there are at the moment, to me it seems a key way to make unusual, exciting characters.

A look at classes

My second favorite part of 3.5/Pathfinder is the base classes. So much my favorite that my knowledge of some other areas, like monsters, may be suffering. This may stem from my only being a player thus far, running my own game would emphasize other parts of the game rules. I love playing with the classes, making up character builds for the sheer joy of it. And I have made various attempts at homebrewing my own base classes, with basically all of them ending up as half-complete shells. In trying to make my own classes, I learned how difficult it is to make a whole 20 levels that is coherent and interesting and at a reasonable level of power.

And, you know what? Maybe the game’s creators had a hard time of it too.

A lot has been written to this effect already. Here are things that I have been noticing, while starting to take a detailed look at the system to understand its structure. I will be mostly referencing Pathfinder, as it is what I use when playing and I consider it a welcome refinement of the 3.5 rules.

The Chassis

The Chassis is a term I’ve heard used to describe some basic information about the class. The relevant information is the class Base Attack Bonus progression, saves progressions, Hit Die, and skill points per level. I grabbed the core classes and a few others and put them all in a chart, with fancy color-coding and everything. I find it rather enlightening.

Let’s explain the chart, one column at a time. The Column labled BAB contains the Base Attack Bonus progression for the class, abbreviated Good for 1/1, Med for 3/4, and Bad for 1/2. Fort, Ref, and Will are Fortitude, Reflex, and Will save progressions, which are either Good (2+1/2 per level) or Bad (1/3 per level). HP is the class Hit Dice, in Pathfinder the options are (d)6, 8, 10, and 12. Skills is the number of skill points the class gets per level, either 2, 4, 6, or 8. The last column let’s ignore for now, attributes may be a topic for another post.

Here is a question: What is the baseline? I think its a very important question in game design. If the classes are defined as ways of allowing one player’s character to be mechanically different from another player’s character, their variance is a thing of great importance. And when you look at changing values, figure out the good old elementary school Mean, Median and Mode. In fewer words, the baseline. I believe that the baseline for a base class is Medium BAB, d8 Hit Dice, 4 skill points per level, and 1 good save progression. I will explain my conclusions for each value in the following paragraphs.

For BAB I picked Medium (3/4) progression as the baseline, both due to it being in the middle and the majority of classes using it. In fact, 10 out of the 17 classes here use Medium. So, most adventurers are apparently expected to be okay, but not perfect, at hitting things with blunt or pointed objects. For the classes with a Bad (1/2) progression, it is used as a sort of cost. They suck at hitting things, as a balancing factor to having an advantage elsewhere. Similarly but opposite, the classes with a Good/Full (1/1) BAB have such basically as a class feature, probably one of the reasons you would pick the class is its high BAB.

For Hit Dice, a d8 seems to be the baseline and its definitely the most common value. It is not the middle, we have 4 options so there is no exact middle…sort of. See, there’s only 1 class that gets d12 Hit Dice, and that is the Barbarian. That’s why I put a special blue field in for that value, it sticks out a like a sore thumb alongside the other classes. If we consider it an outlier and remove it from the discussion, we get 3 classes with d6 and 3 with d10, all the rest at the middle d8 value.

As a short aside, BAB and Hit Dice seem to be very linked. A Good BAB gets you d10 hit dice, except for the Barbarian’s d12. Medium gets you d8, and Bad BAB gets you d6.

For Skill Points, 4 looks like it’s the baseline, or maybe that it “should” be the baseline. In a situation very similar to Hit Dice, we have 4 values and the highest value, 8 points, is only given to a single class: the Rogue. They also get a special blue field for sticking out above the crowd. But after that we lose our nice bell curve. 1 class gets 8 points, 3 get 6 points, 5 get 4 points, and 8 get 2 points. The average is 3.6 points, median is 4 points, yet almost half of the classes get 2 points. Did the designers take 2 points as their baseline, so any class that got more than that was getting a ‘bonus’?

And now Saves, where I said I think 1 good save is the baseline. Truth be told it is my shakiest assessment. 8 classes have 1 good save, 8 have 2 good saves, and a single class, the maligned Monk, gets all 3 good save progressions. We again have an in-blue special case. But what’s the normal case? Trends I notice are that all 3 classes with low BAB/HD also only have 1 save. But an equal number of high BAB/HD classes have 1 vs 2 good saves. Excluding the Monk, there is only 1 class with good Ref and Will saves, 2 classes have good Fort and Ref, and the remaining 5 have good Fort and Will. If a class has 2 good saves it tends to have more skill points, yet the 8-skill Rogue only has 1 good save. In the end, I really don’t know here. If the baseline is 1 save, maybe it’s more of a “starting point” than an “average value”.

Okay, now that we’re done looking at this column-by-column, here’s the first thing I see when I look at it row-by-row: Some classes just got robbed. The three classes with the lowest BAB (Sorcerer, Witch, Wizard) also have the lowest available hit dice (and that’s after they got an upgrade, in 3.5 they just had d4!), skill points, and only 1 good save. This is the lowest you can go, unless you become a negative outlier in contrast to our blue above-average scores. Some more similarities of these classes: Their good save is Will. They are Arcane full-casters. None of them have armor or shield proficiency, and they are proficient with Simple weapons at most. Their actual class abilities are essentially “Spells…and something minor every couple of levels, maybe.” Apparently, those spells are so dang freakishly powerful that they warrant making the class suck, absolutely freaking SUCK, at EVERYTHING else. And…apparently, the Internet agrees. These classes are often rated as the most powerful and potentially game-breaking classes. But, in contrast, the same internet sources usually list other classes that are just as potentially broken that aren’t nerfed in every other category. At this point I’ll just shrug, this is an interesting trend but I don’t see any grand truth coming out of it.

Now, let me talk about super powers. Yes, I’m still referring to the chart. The chart seems to clearly indicate that there are 3 classes with a super power because a part of their chassis is superior to any other class out there. A Monk definitely gets some attention for having good all-around saves, and it has a couple class abilities that are related. The Barbarian has their Con score as a bit of focus since it determines how long they can Rage, and their d12 HD on top of it just emphasizes how much the class was intended to have the most HP of anybody. But I think the humble Rogue shines the most at this. The class is taken for two things: Sneak Attack and Skills. It has as a class skill nearly every skill. With 8 points, a Rogue can have a broader selection of skills than most 2 or 3 classes put together. What skills you select determines what kind of Rogue you are…and their super power flows right along with this. Looking at it now, I don’t see how this could have been anything other than an intentional decision by someone down the line.

And, I like it. It makes a lot of sense to me for every class to have a Super Power, something where they are mechanically different, ahead of all others. This is difficult to impossible in practice though, since there are only so many unique mechanics to hand out Super Powers for. I mean, if a second class got 8 skill points, that really takes away from the Rogue’s uniqueness. But still, in the theory and the abstract view of the design, I really like those blue cells.

The Arbiter

My name is John, and I am a Rules Judge. I was given this title back in high school by my friends. We played Magic: The Gathering quite a lot, and naturally questions and disputes about issues came up. I ended up being the resident authority. Since this was before kids got awesome smartphones and could take laptops to school, we basically had the text on the cards and whatever we remembered reading while at home. Well, I turned out to remember a lot, because I read a lot. I once sat down on a Saturday and read, in its entirety, the current list of all printed cards in the history of the game. At the time it was 7000 or so cards. I did this reading before I even knew that new cards were printed every year! Not too long after that I read through most of the Comprehensive Rules document. And since I could easily remember such oddities as stack, priority, protection, and so on I became the Judge. Questions went to the Judge. If you were curious about a card’s text but didn’t have a copy with you, ask the Judge. If a 5-way multiplayer game involving Shared Fate, Confusion in the Ranks, and Stifle had questions, I would have an answer.

I even got my own card.

While I still dabble in Magic, I currently am more active playing Dungeons and Dragons. More specifically, the ‘variant’ or perhaps ‘refinement’ of the 3.5 rules called Pathfinder. I’ve got a fun playgroup I was invited into, full of veterans of the game. And then something odd happened.

I became the Judge again.

I was being asked for the rules text of a certain class, or the DC of a rules check…because I usually seemed to have the answer. Yes, I do read through the rulebooks and SRD for fun. Apparently to an unhealthy extent, as in less than 2 years I have gotten a memorization of the rules that is apparently prized among my veteran crew. But, again, it seems natural. The rules just hold a fascination for me, the similarities and contrasts between player classes, the wordings and DCs of skills and spells. How it all seems to fit together, so if you tug at one part of the web you upset the system elsewhere. It makes me want to experiment and analyze and shred the game down to its core: how does the game really work? And, maybe, how can I make it work better?

Perhaps that is natural for the Rules Judge. To want to move from watching and understanding…to creating. To become a Game Engineer, if such a thing exists. Understanding the structure and composition of a game in such depth and breadth that one could build it again from the foundations up, just because you can. Perhaps I can reach that ability. And, maybe, writing it down and talking about it will help. And so I shall do so.

Judge sounds a little stuffy. How about…

The Arbiter