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In Dungeons and Dragons or Pathfinder, often you might design or plan a character for what he can do at high level. For example, I might want to play a Mystic Theurge or some other prestige class, or perhaps I simply am building my character around feats or spells not available at low level. These characters are often quite effective at their intended levels, but not nearly so at lower ones. In fact, in the case of the Mystic Theurge in 3.5, I found that, before reaching the prestige class, the character was more likely to be knocked unconscious than kill anything and that the character was an active hindrance to the party because of its weakness.

How can one mitigate the low-level weakness of a character to ensure they survive to reach their intended goal, and not hinder the party in the process?

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8 Answers 8

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You have identified the difference between practical and theoretical optimization. Theoretical optimization identifies only the end product in the presence of a "neutral but benign GM." Practical optimization is worried about the paths and the playability at all levels.

It is easy to state this goal, of course. In practice, this means rebuilding a character four or five (or seventeen) times to account for the discrepancies introduced during the creation process. It also means finding a way to experience the class at various choke points to be aware of the optimization level at each choke point.

Looking at the Theurge you gave in your example, it is immediately obvious that the opportunity cost of a 2 level multiclass is nominally intolerable for the "Thou shalt never lose caster levels" Tier 1 classes. Therefore, we can look for solutions which minimize this opportunity cost. Ur-priest, the various early-entry methods, race selection to maintain effective caster level, etc.

None of these tricks are difficult nor even non-obvious. However, this problem illustrates my Constrained Optimization paper nicely: a good character is about well stated requirements. It is a common failing of the theoretical optimizer that they do not sufficiently articulate their requirements such that the character is playable or fun.

Practically, there are many ways to mitigate "low-level" weakness in a character. They all start with a coherent level by level build of the character, the level goals, and the intended play style. By creating quantifiable requirements, it is possible to anticipate "low-level" weaknesses and therefore build around them.

The best way to do this, besides not taking the superficially optimal class that does not fulfill your requirements, is to offload common tasks onto class features/items that do not necessarily require a higher level to function. In the case of the theurge, careful spell selection will mitigate the one level dip into an arcane caster class due to various feats neatly. There exists sufficient variety in spells that the trade off of one divine caster level for arcane casting is easily balanced.

Will this create an 'optimal blaster?" It depends on your requirements.

By enchanting magic items with common healing spells, it then becomes less necessary for you to have a maximal number of healing/buffing slots available. By finding an attack method that is not tied to caster-level during these first few critical levels, the need for higher-level spell slots is reduced.

Therefore, the "optimal" strategy is to take a level of ur-priest and theurge from that. Barring that, precocious apprentice or earth spell will provide a much shorter entry into mystic theurge, making it a slightly less non-optimal choice to take. At the end of the day, this is an area that has been well researched with much literature. Searching the literature for your given set of requirements will show solutions that you can test against your requirements level by level.

Be prepared to spend significant amounts of time on practical optimization, especially in systems that do not lend themselves to trivial computational modelling.

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Precocious Apprentice is wonderful, but I'm not familiar with Earth Spell; where's it from? –  lorimer May 4 '12 at 2:17
    
Races of Stone. It's an interesting heighten spell effect that may or may not qualify in this particular case. –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton May 4 '12 at 12:39
    
Oddly enough I don't really care about the op. –  C. Ross May 4 '12 at 15:23
1  
Yes, but the question is framed in terms of "high level builds" which is optimization in the broad sense of generating requirements and building to them. –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton May 4 '12 at 15:30
    
I like your use terms commonly found in software development processes :P. –  TheXenocide Mar 31 at 22:54

Some options.

  1. RPG Purist answer - Don't do it! Avoid CharOp and highly tuned builds. You're getting your just deserts - it's the min part of min-maxing, in addition to dumping stats you're dumping levels and you should have to pay your dues on that. You should build your character level by level based on what they are doing at the time (i.e. you don't suddenly have a level in thief because you want to start thieving, you take one to reflect that you have been spending time thieving). This was the good-hearted if possibly naive goal of the 3e multiclassing rules when they were introduced.

  2. Cheeseweasel and proud of it answer - Get your GM to allow rebuilding at every level/every couple levels. You can then have a build tuned for whatever level you're at. Who cares about continuity when you have POWERZ?!?

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2  
I don't think I would characterize the goal stated in the question ("I want to create a Mystic Theurge") as char-op. Particularly if you're being forced to start at low levels. –  AceCalhoon May 3 '12 at 14:07
    
+1 for point 2. in a way at least; our GM has a house rule that means every level you can change 1 feat if you want (subject to approval) this means as new cheese comes out as well you can adapt your character. –  Rob May 3 '12 at 14:40

Planning for creation is just another part of the optimization process. For example, for Mystic Theurge requires you to cast second-level divine and arcane spells. So you'll need three levels of, say, cleric and wizard. But this doesn't say anything about the order of levels. If you take your cleric levels first, you'll have more hp at levels 1-5 (6 will be equally painful either way). You should still have material rewards appropriate for a level 4-6 character; to the extent that you can, pick those which cover your worst weaknesses. For example, for levels 4 and 5, where your wizard levels are almost useless anyway, you're probably better off just getting good armor and weapons as allowed by the cleric.

You often can't make a high-powered character by optimizing the path as well as the endpoint, but you can certainly mitigate the worst drawbacks.

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I think it makes a difference depending on the kinds of people you play with. I've played with people who almost demand optimization and if your character is even slightly a hinderance they'll shame you (read: me) right out of the group.

Myself, I handle the poor initial optimization through role play. I try and get into the character and roll with that. Sure he/she sucks right now, but he's got big dreams for the future or he'll "show you all one day!" It's tough when you've got a really great idea, but won't see it come to fruition for some time (harder when your party TPKs and you never even get there!) but for me knowing the character and playing him, lumps and all, becomes part of the fun. Of course YMMV.

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I've wrestled with this exact question for quite some time, as I really do enjoy playing "jack of all trades" characters. What's worse is that most of the campaigns I've been apart of tend to fall apart as they transition from apprentice-to-journeyman levels (around 8th-ish level in Pathfinder terms).

My solution for this has been three fold:

  1. In games that start at level one and expect slow advancement- Just don't do it. It's not worth the agony of spending months (years?) dreaming about the dream character. Get used to the idea that you're going to play low level, and optimize for that instead of optimizing for dreams. I'd call this the pragmatists path.
  2. In games that start low level but have rapid advancement- This is on the fence. If the game promises to rapidly advance in to the upper levels, then you can probably survive the lower levels as you mess with trying to get the right levels and skills. But from what I've observed in most gaming groups, people don't care to pander to the 'journey'. Really, this is just a question of your gaming groups social dynamic.
  3. Start a game that begins at the level that you desire- Apprentice levels are boring to me. I've done far too many games that start between 1st and 5th level. I'm no longer interested in them. Most games I join these days allow me to start at what I would call a "reasonable adventuring" level, rather than goblin-killing levels. Even by 7th level, a Mystic Theurge can start to prosper. Ideally they would have third level spells in two different disciplines. That would give them an awful lot of flexibility.

And that's my take. I realize it boils down to "just don't do it" at it's rawest form, but that's pretty much been my take away from trying to do it for years.

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Clearly you have to make a character playable at each stage, or you may not live to achieve your target. My approach is to have a plan for where I want my character to go. I use that plan as a framework for some of the choices I make - more so that I don't utterly derail my plan before I even start. But then I choose my spells/skills/feats with an eye toward the current level. Each level, I reevaluate the plan and the path that I'm on... Is it appropriate to multiclass? Is it time to bring in that Feat to realign my plan? OR is it time to change course completely? Sometimes life doesn't conform to our plans, and the same is true in our games. It's really helpful to be able to go with the flow and make situationally appropriate choices to keep yourself strong enough to get to each new milestone. The only way to reasonably bear those lower levels is to play the journey honestly.

In the example of the Mystic Theurge, start as one class. Be a cleric or be a wizard. Heal for awhile or be a zap-blaster... and do it well. Reevaluate your plan when you reach the turning point level: do you still WANT to go down that path? If so, add your multiclass and play up both sides. What I think is the least useful is a flip-flop multiclass character. Wiz 2 / Cler 2 is painfully useless compared with Wiz 4.

Just my $0.02. YMMV.

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The D&D 4E way of partially avoiding this problem is to allow the alteration or swapping-out of one skill trainining/feat/chosen power/etc, per level gain. This allows you to slowly alter your character's build as it develops, which fits with the general observation that in the Real World, people's specialties/professions/physiques can and do change over the years for many reasons.

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I've been reviewing prestige classes for a bit and I've come to my own pretty concise conclusion on this one. Most prestige builds that require multi-classing in two distant roles (such as Cleric and Wizard) almost necessitate a supporting role build.

As Brian Ballsun-Stanton said above, compromising two tier 1 classes that depend heavily on caster level for effectiveness is a relatively intolerable setback for anyone hoping to create a low-to-mid level key player. An arcane spellcaster that is set back in spell progression is about as useful offensively as a bag of small stones. Clerics without high level spells are a little better off because they can dedicate slots to defensive spells but still spontaneous cast healing. However, neither class will offer you base attack or base save bonuses worth mentioning and you will have to suffer even greater hardship if you decide to risk arcane spell failure and armor yourself.

Hence my initial statement: If you want to try and reach a prestige class like Mystic Theurge, you will need to assume a "run for cover" role in the party's combat dynamic. I'd recommend devoting some skill points to one or two non-combat skills like Diplomacy or a Profession. Your goals as a character (not in game) would be to: 1 - Stay alive, 2 - Help others in your party stay alive, 3 - Aid your party members in killing things. (In that order!)

The last thing worth mentioning is that if your GM is the combat-heavy-roleplay-light-to-non-existent type, I don't think these types of character will serve you well. In your original complaint you said you find your character is "more likely to be knocked unconscious than kill anything," and to me that seems indicative of a combat-heavy mindset. (Please, correct me if I'm wrong.) I just want to share my experience from playing a few different multi-class characters with differing GMs. I found I was of average usefulness in a story driven, roleplay heavy campaign, but nearly inconsequential in a kick-in-the-door play style. So it is important to consider the play style of your game when choosing a character and not simply select a build that appeals to you in the abstract.

Sorry if my answer disappoints. It's as if you asked, "What's the best way to draw a cat?" and I answered, "You should paint it." :)

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+1 welcome. "You're doing it wrong" is a completely valid answer so long as it's well supported. And this is well written. Welcome to the site. –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton May 4 '12 at 17:31
    
Thanks! Just discovered this site through obsidian portal and I'm blown away by the quality of the content. –  Vestrik May 4 '12 at 22:41

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