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I've played a few Pathfinder games, I've even considered running one myself, and I've come across a common problem for me when I play my character (or in any system really).

I start out with a decent build, exactly what I want within the limitations of the character options, and fairly happy with what I have to start out with, and plenty of room to grow going ahead.

But the 'going ahead' part catches me up. During gameplay, my character's goals and motives can shift and change, and often what I had planned in advance seems less useful in the light of what's going on in the campaign.

More problematically, what I usually find once my growth starts is that it is either woefully underpowered, strongly dis-recommended by my fellow players, or both. I've played a Monk, a Gunslinger, and am currently playing a Magus, but I constantly have the probelm that, when it comes time to start growing out my character, I find them falling further and further behind other characters in terms of sheer strength, power, and usefulness.

What can I do to help plan out my character better, so that they'll continue to be a productive member of the team? Is it better to focus on one talent and stick to it? Or is it better to diversify?

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3 Answers 3

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The primary goal for planning out a 3.x character is to ensure that you receive level-appropriate powers at each level. This is complicated by the fact that it’s extremely unclear what is appropriate at each level; the different classes get wildly different levels of power at various levels (especially high levels).

Worse, the system uses stringent requirements and option “chains” that rely on one another constantly. A character that evolves naturally is extremely unlikely to meet the requirements of the feats, powers, and so on that are now appropriate to the new direction he’s moving in.

If you change directions, and are taking “starter” feats in this new direction (feats a lower-level character taken), you are, by definition, not getting level-appropriate feats.

Thus, yes, it is generally best to think of your mechanical options in terms of what you hope to have at the highest level you expect to hit. If you don’t, when you get past the level you have planned out to, you risk simply not having level-appropriate options to take.

What it takes to plan a character

Spellcasters simplify planning

Spellcasters, particularly the ones that prepare different spells every day, are massively better off in this regard. Spells are just-about-guaranteed to be level-appropriate (since they are leveled), do not rely on knowing certain prior spells (allowing you to change direction easily), and, if you prepare spells, you can totally switch everything you’re doing each day.

Plus, more importantly, spells are by far the most powerful force available to Pathfinder characters. When you play a fullcaster (gets up to 9th-level spells), you following the highest available standard for what “level-appropriate” might mean. A 6th-level spell can be, and very often is, much better than anything an 11th-level gunslinger or monk gets. Mundane and martial characters in Pathfinder are often limited by Paizo’s sense of verisimilitude; spellcasters get a free pass on that, and are only limited by spells per day (which are plentiful by mid levels).

All that power frees you up a lot on your other choices. You can pick weak feats, and it won’t matter very much because your spells are so good. You can even pick weak spells, and if you’re a prepared spellcaster it still won’t matter that much, because you can always just prepare different spells tomorrow.

Mundane and martial characters are much more complicated to plan out

Counter-intuitively, the classes that seem “simplest” at first glance are actually the most complicated. They easily get “locked in” to certain paths, with extremely harsh punishments for trying to find a new path, and there are abundant “traps” you can get locked into that prevent you from getting level-appropriate abilities.

Thus, you have to carefully figure out exactly what you’re getting each level, figure out how that compares to the spells available at that level, and try to make sure you don’t fall too far behind. Inevitably, you will fall behind spellcaster’s potential, but with care and the right group, you may be able to keep up with the actual spellcasters that you play with. You will have to work harder than they do to accomplish that, however.

So you have to look at all the options available to you, pare away the ones that just don’t keep up (and a lot don’t), and then you have to make sure you are hitting all of the prerequisites you need to in order to get those things on time. In many cases, you will have to commit yourself quite strongly in order to accomplish this; you will not be able to have your character naturally evolve in a new direction. In some cases, you will have to deny yourself options you like, because they require too much, pull you too far away from getting the requirements you need in the future, and so on. For example, only a couple of monk archetypes progress well into mid-to-high levels; the overwhelming majority start falling behind very early. Those archetypes are therefore not available to you if you want to keep up later in the game, because they lock you in and deny you the options you need later.

Your DM can help massively

By allowing extensive retraining, merging and modifying archetypes to mix ‘n’ match to get the features you want, and relaxing or eliminating requirements liberally, a DM can dramatically improve your life. It can allow greater ability to change direction, improve the power-level of weaker classes, and ensuring that the stuff you’re getting is actually good rather than just the random tax you have to pay to keep your options open later.

This is probably still insufficient to keep up with spellcasters, if they’re well-played, but it will help. If your group is not optimizing their spellcasters very hard, you can optimize your weaker class and smooth out the imbalance. It’s not easy, even with DM help, but it can be done to an extent.

But your life will simply be easier as a fullcaster.

Specialization, versatility, and planning

The discussion of whether you should plan on a specialty or plan on doing a bit of everything is, again, sharply delineated along the mundane/magical divide.

Mundanes: almost-enforced specialization

For a mundane character, getting a new trick means starting from the 1st-level feats. Thus, generalizing for a mundane character means starting over. As I hope I’ve established, this is a very bad thing. When you’re level 9, those 1st-level feats are long since obsolete; enemies you face have to be prepared for the 9th-level version of your new trick, which means your 1st-level version isn’t going to impress.

Worse, the thing you had been doing for the first 8 levels is now potentially missing a bonus you could have, and your enemies could be prepared for. Missing one isn’t a big deal; the real problem is if you get to 16th level, and have 8th-level versions of both tricks, neither of which actually works against 16th-level enemies who are prepared for the 16th-level versions of those tricks.

This is what happens when you attempt to generalize as a martial or mundane character, and it’s a huge problem. It all but forces you to specialize, and it means you will inevitably run into situations, potentially many situations, where your trick doesn’t work.

(Note: for simplicity’s sake, I’m describing this as a single trick. In reality, you can probably support a few tricks. But I do mean “a few” – we are talking 1-3, maybe 4 tricks here. And they are likely to be quite narrow tricks with significant scenarios where none of them work.)

Casters: freedom to generalize

On the spellcasting side, you can at 9th level pick up a new trick, that is a spell completely different from any other you’ve ever used before, and it will still be appropriate to a 9th-level character. And spells automatically scale with caster level, which means the spells you already know are still just as good as they would have been. Each spell is independent, which frees you up a lot to generalize. Spellcasting means you can simultaneously support many tricks, and that means you are far less likely to run into a situation where none of your tricks work.

How to plan

As a mundane character, you’re almost definitely going to need to pick a specialty, a few tricks, hopefully related, to support. Otherwise you are not likely to be able to maintain level-appropriate features (barring extremely careful build planning). Worse, you can’t just take your pick; you have to choose your tricks carefully. You need to find out how easily enemies can negate it, and make sure your tricks are as broadly effective as possible, how you are going to handle the limits it does have.

As a spellcaster, you don’t need to plan on a specialty, but you should still be a bit careful. You don’t want all your spells to do the same thing; doing that gives up a huge advantage in that you can have your spells do very different things. That said, you still probably want a specialty. This is what you spend your feats and other permanent options on, this is a major part of your character’s identity, this is a bigger chunk of your spells than others. It will make you have a specialty that you can excel in, that, when it works, can be devastating. But don’t sacrifice your versatility. Even if you’re a “blaster,” you don’t need a direct-damage spell at every level: you need one great one, and one that will work when that one doesn’t, and maybe at higher levels you should get another as the others become obsolete. The other spells are utility, answers when direct-damage isn’t a good one, and whatnot. You don’t need to sacrifice versatility to be effective, so you shouldn’t.

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Many Role-playing Games Reward Specialization

The ability to do one thing well is better than the ability to do many things poorly.

A character who can do a little bit of everything is only successful in one-on-one play, and he is only successful because there aren't other characters. In group play, characters generally assume... well... roles. Those roles differ vastly from campaign to campaign, but usually 1 character gets 1 role, and when that character's not present that method of problem-solving must be acquired by the other players in play or ignored in favor of the resources available.

It sounds like what you're doing is trying to be an action hero, and action heroes aren't the best model for characters in a role-playing game because of most role-playing games' ensemble nature. The action hero works alone, does everything himself, and wins. You can do the first two in a role-playing game, but that last will be elusive. Few games expect every character to handle every situation. Instead of trying to be the team, try to be part of the team.

Your Character's Specialty Makes Your Character Valuable

It doesn't matter what it is. In Pathfinder, you could be the guy who bargains with monsters, quickly and efficiently makes magic items, casts divination spells, sneaks around, or whatever, but you should pick something and be as good at that as you possibly can. If you're the best at something, you'll be contributing because what you're best at is how you solve problems.

Option 1: Talk to the Other Players

If you don't know in what you can or should specialize, talk to the other players, including the DM, and find out the campaign's themes and current group composition, and set about making the best character for the campaign that complements that group. In my last Pathfinder group, the DM said that the campaign was an fantasy urban police procedural with a few combat-heavy characters. My half-orc inquisitor who could track anything was quite valuable; although the other characters hit things harder, he made it to where we found the things we were supposed to hit more quickly.

Option 2: Play What You Want

If you know what other characters are involved, pick something they're not doing and do it. Here's the secret: It doesn't matter what it is. Unless what you've picked is straight-up inapplicable (e.g. the greatest stage actor in the world... in a dungeon-crawling campaign), that becomes what you do, and your method of solving problems becomes that. When you turn yourself into a hammer, the world's a nail.

A Problem with Pathfinder

Pathfinder has more than a few character classes that are perfectly survivable and that contribute just fine at low levels but expire at higher levels. Further, Pathfinder punishes multiclassing (or, depending on one's point of view, rewards single-classing), so once a class reaches its expiration date, getting out usually means abandoning the character rather than trying to make him go. Such a character will never be as good as those who started off being good at what they do. My half-orc inquisitor made it to level 9, but he was obsolete; had the campaign continued, he would've retired, and I would've brought in a character who could contribute better alongside the alchemist, cleric, and summoner. He was becoming a burden. He had maybe two levels left. And that's okay.

Play a Full Caster!
You've played a gunslinger, magus, and monk, and all of these have expiration dates. Only one casts spells, and Pathfinder loves casters. If you want a character who'll be competitive throughout his career without requiring careful planning, pick a class that eventually casts 9th-level spells. Your character's less likely to become accidentally obsolete, his niche is much bigger, and a character with a varying spell selection means that if you do feel like he's not contributing today, you can contribute better tomorrow by picking a whole new suite of spells.

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I'm not sure I buy that specialization is so rewarded. After all, versatility is often the most highly-prized form of power in 3.x. Plus, generalizing from 3.x to RPGs in general is probably off -- I'm sure there are RPGs that reward jacks of all trades highly. That said, I think you have a point: you are best off planning along the lines of some specialty. This also illustrates why spellcasters are better off: they can specialize in something, putting their feats towards it, but still can cast all the spells and have plenty of opportunity to handle things their specialty can't. –  KRyan Apr 22 at 19:29
    
That is one thing I never liked about Pathfinder OR 3.5e - the heavy rewards for casters at higher-level, compared to the almost pointlessness of warriors. That being said, I will take the advice to specialize a bit more to heart. –  Zibbobz Apr 22 at 19:56
    
@KRyan A group of PCs who are each experts at a single task will be more successful at overcoming challenges than a group of PCs who are all lousy at variety of tasks. I can't think of a game in which this isn't true, but I added a qualifier anyway just in case That Game exists. –  Hey I Can Chan Apr 22 at 21:29
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Please don't use comments for debating vaguely related topics. They should be used in a limited fashion to point out omissions/errors in, or ask for clarifications of, the answer. –  mxyzplk Apr 22 at 21:59
    
I would suggest addressing the potential ability to not specialize for certain types of classes or options - for example, wizards, or sorcerers making use of paragon surge. That is to say, full casters don't need to specialize necessarily, but any desired specialization should be included in the planning. –  Lord_Gareth Apr 23 at 17:57

There are three ways to plan a character's growth to remain viable.

  1. Pick a class that doesn't require much planning. Clerics with a high wisdom and Selective Channeling can basically throw darts at their remaining feats and stay valuable throughout their careers. Same thing with wizards who have solid spell penetration and a high intelligence, as long as they have a rich spellbook. The further you move from these full casters, the more up-front planning you're going to require.

  2. Find a guide for the class you want to play. There's a lovely guide to class guides on the Paizo Forums which should lead you to a reasonable build for any of the classes. Some of them are better than others (Treantmonk's in particular are thought to be quite good), but all of them should at least lead you towards a reasonably performing character.

  3. Plan out your character yourself. Contrary to what has been said elsewhere, none of the classes "expire" purely by virtue of their class. When someone says, "monks aren't viable past level 12," what they usually mean is, "I screwed up my monk build." However, there are lots of ways to screw up your build! There are several things to keep in mind to combat this:

    • Read all the guides. They contain valuable insight into how the class works, even if you don't want to follow their build advice.
    • Plan out your character's full career, up to the level you expect to stop. If you're playing an Adventure Path, find out how far the characters are likely to go. If you're in a homebrew game, consider planning all the way out to 20. If you're in a mythic game, be sure your mythic path matches your mundane path.
    • Be singular and consistent. You are either a melee inquisitor or a ranged inquisitor, not both. Once you decide, all of your abilities should go to complementing that choice.
    • Synergize with the other players. If you're a rogue, be sure there is someone willing to flank with you. If you're with a monk, try to find abilities that daze or stagger. Consider Teamwork Feats that can help you define a default play style.
    • Meet your prerequisites. You don't want to be at level seven, all ready to start your Combat Expertise feat tree, only to find that you dumped intelligence.
    • Don't be too weird. A halfling cavalier with a dolphin mount who is awesome at underwater fighting is just not going to serve you well in the vast majority of situations.
    • Unless your game is explicitly non-combat-oriented, consider focusing on combat. We compare ourselves most readily to the others in the party during combat -- how many kills do I have? What's my DPR? Am I keeping people healed up? -- and combat is something most PF players can count on occurring during every session. If you contribute in combat, you'll probably feel good about your place in the party, even if you suck in non-combat encounters. Prefer combat-oriented feats or, if you're a caster, apply your metamagic feats to combat-oriented spells.

Finally, keep in mind that we all feel underpowered sometimes. Whether it's a string of bad rolls, an environment not suited to your character (poor druids), uncrittable monsters (poor rogues), or the giant-specialized ranger out-DPRing everyone, there will be periods -- perhaps multiple-level periods -- where you feel like you're not contributing. During these times, stick to your plan and try to keep your eye on the future. Eventually, it should come around!

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I'm afraid that I've downvoted this answer for both general inaccuracy and failing to deal in the sharp complexity divides that Pathfinder has for its classes; to wit, a wizard's spell selection requires quite a bit of planning, but a an oracle using Paragon Surge doesn't care. –  Lord_Gareth Apr 23 at 17:48
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It's nice to see one of the answers mention guides. While they aren't perfect, they're a great way for people to plan a character, especially early on, when they don't have much experience with the game or their group's style. –  Thaliak Apr 24 at 23:43

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