Where to start? First of all, I'm planning on running a Homebrew Pathfinder campaign of my own. I've already got the plot laid out and ideas for various NPCs. The problem is I'm running into an issue with a villain I'm trying to design.

The villain is a shapeshifter that replaces the NPC that called the party together at the start of the game. He kidnaps and then swaps places with the character shortly before the PCs arrive and the game starts. He travels with the party for most of the game as their friend. Later in the game he is revealed to be an imposter and becomes a recurring villain and eventually the climax of the game. My problem is I was hoping to play them as one class as the friend and another class as the villain. Can I do that? Have the Class change with the shapeshifter's form? I was also debating making them a different class every time they encounter them as the villain, to make things interesting, but that depends on if this shapeshifter thing is possible.

I guess I should also mention I'm new to GMing, so please explain things as clearly as possible since I'm still fuzzy on some rules and stuff.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Hello, Shifter, and welcome to the site. This is a great first question. \$\endgroup\$ – Tynam Apr 19 '14 at 8:55

Mundane Villainy Is More Interesting than Magical Villainy

If the villain uses magic to create problems, then magic is what'll be used to solve those problems. However, if the mundane is used to create problems, magic and the mundane can be used to solve those problems. Further, the players don't feel as though you're cheating if the villain's just dastardly instead of an archmage.

In your plot, you say that

The villain is a shapeshifter that replaces the NPC that called the party together at the start of the game. He kidnaps and then swaps places with the character shortly before the PCs arrive and the game starts. He travels with the party for most of the game as their friend. Later in the game he is revealed to be an imposter and becomes a recurring villain and eventually the climax of the game.

So, um, why does the villain need to be a shapeshifter?

What if the villain isn't a shapeshifter? What if he isn't even a master of disguise? What if he just showed up before the PCs arrived, took down the dude the PCs had never seen before, buried the dude the in the woods or spirited the dude off to an undisclosed location, and took the dude's place--all without a disguise? The PCs wouldn't know... unless they were told his appearance beforehand. Even then, that's countered by any dead simple lie (e.g. "Just to be safe, I changed my appearance for our meeting"; "Of course it's me! Here's my signet ring!"). Suddenly, neither magic nor mundane means sees through his ruse.

I would urge against having the villain accompany the PCs. I don't know the villain's goal--which is where I start with any plot--, but the villain should know that PCs encounter trouble frequently, that he'll be forced to step in, and that he'll eventually be unmasked, semi-Scooby-doo-esque style. Like Tynam suggested, rather than going with the PCs himself, have the PCs accompanied by villainous agents instead.

Bribery & Extortion: The Villain's Best Friends

The great thing about the villain is that he can do so much off-screen. He has agents because he can offer them things other can't or has resources others don't. And if they don't come up, you don't ever need to explain what they are. You can, of course, and that means when the agent is finally revealed as the villain's henchcreature, the creature can say, "I had to help the villain because he knows the location of my stolen eggs," and the villain totally does, and the PCs don't, but the PCs can. And with that, other options open up that don't just involve the spells break enchantment or dispel magic.

Villains Should Use All Their Abilities Effectively

Let's say you absolutely want to go with the shapeshfiting villain, and you pick as the basis of your villain the old standby, the doppelganger. Sure, the special abilities change shape and perfect copy are why you picked the doppelganger in the first place, but that at-will detect thoughts? O, my. He can read minds through walls! Bribery and extortion should be no problem. And that mimicry extraordinary ability? With that the doppelganger can use any wand or staff. He doesn't need to actually have different classes when he can use the class's abilities, albeit via items.

There's no need to have such a villain--who's a walking espionage agency/terrorist cell--also have game-breaking, no-PCs-can't-have-it abilities. Just have him use what he already possesses to the hilt. The doppleganger, for instance, can already be different every time the PCs encounter him as he can have a different selection of wands and staffs.

When you look at a creature or NPC imagine he's had at least his own 4-issue limited series in which to prepare himself for villainy. What crazy things using the game's rules in the world in which he exists can he do with his powers? Then let him already have done it. Then let him start implementing his villainous plan.

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Yes, you can. But that doesn't mean you should.

I'm not aware of any mechanic in Pathfinder by which a shifter can change classes when they change form, and I'd be very surprised if there was one - it defeats the purpose of a class-based system.

However, you're the GM. Your primary responsibility is to make a game that's fun for everyone. You can definitely break the rules in the service of the story, to that end. (You can do almost anything, assuming your players don't object.)

But breaking the rules comes with a price - especially in a case like this, where you can't get player buy-in before you do it. You're eroding the predictability of the world - making the players less certain of how it works. Handled badly, the players will feel that you "cheated" by giving them a villain that they had no way to beat. Even at best, it makes the players less certain of how the world works - something that you normally don't want. And then the players will want to probe at the edges of the change, until they do understand it.

(An example problem: what are you going to answer if one of the players wants to play a shifter who can do this as their next character? If a villain can do it, why can't a hero? That way lies a great deal of future trouble for you.)

So before you do this, we should examine why you want to. What do you gain from allowing the villain to have every character class as needed?

Making the disguise more convincing

An obvious reason to do it: you want the ultimate villain to be, for example, a wizard, but the NPC to be replaced is a fighter. You want the villain not to give themselves away by having few hit points and missing easy targets, or being unable to use the right weapons.

This has a huge drawback - the players will feel, correctly, that you cheated. By giving the character abilities they shouldn't have, you're artificially removing their chance to spot something was wrong.

Instead, you could adjust the real class to match the fake more closely (cleric instead of wizard). Or have a villain who's come well prepared. There are many spells and items a wizard can use to close the gap with a fighter - ask a question here (or in chat) for some examples of how.

Creating a more flexible villain

Maybe you feel he needs a wider range of abilities to make the post-discovery plot and encounters work. Maybe you need divine magic for one encounter, and wizardly items for one of his evil plans.

In that case, don't give him more character classes - give him allies. An evil shapeshifter can persuade, con, bribe or dupe an amazing variety of people to his aid. Give him allies that can do everything you need him to do. That has the same plot effect as the extra character classes, with an extra bonus - now you have intermediate villains for the players to duel to the death, and fooled allies that need to be won back to their side. It gives the players things to do.

Making your villain more awesome

If this is your motivation, then just don't do it. The reason it's great to have awesome villains is because it improves the plot, and it makes the characters more awesome for fighting them. The purpose of your villain is to give your heroes cool things to do.

But that only works if he meets the heroes on the same terms. Not even terms - he's a villain; he'll cheat if he can. But he must live in the same universe, on the same rules. Otherwise he stops being a villain, and becomes an unavoidable natural disaster, like a tornado - something they can't understand and deal with, just endure.

Your villain is not your character. Players will always feel the desire to make their favourite character more powerful; a GM must resist that temptation. Awesome villainy comes from their personality and plans, not their range of class abilities.

If you do this right, it'll be the treachery and surprise that they remember. Play to that. Make him charming, smart, and capable of advance planning. (Make sure he's carrying a magical way to escape when first discovered.) They'll be talking about it for years.

Plot theme

The best reason to break a rule is if breaking the rule is, in itself, a part of your plot. Maybe an important element of the plot is that he is surprisingly able to shift class - because he's an advance agent for a powerful god of chaos that wants to change the rules, or abolish classes entirely. Maybe he's the destined messiah of all shifters, able to shift to become someone completely with all their skills.

If you're using the power for your plot, you can do this. Be sure there are hints as to the source of, and reasons for, his unique power. Done right, this could make for a truly epic villain. (Make sure he has some major weakness as well, or he'll be truly unbeatable - changing class on demand is a ridiculously powerful ability.)

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So long as you borrow from 3.5, you're set. You're looking for the Chameleon PrC from Races of Destiny.

First, it's fairly easy for a higher-level wizard to impersonate a fighter, all they need to do is cast mages' transformation on themselves. But, in order to do this from a lower level, things become quite interesting.

The Chameleon, at sufficiently high levels, can basically decide to "fake" being any (roughly) base class in the game. With that said, they're not astonishingly good at the fakery, when compared to a non-faked high level class, but that's not the point.

With bard as the basis for the PrC, you have an adequate bluff, selection of spells, and BaB to generally fake being any (non-divine) class early on (so long as you don't out and out declare your level and base attack, they can't even catch you out on not being a full-fighter). When combined with a Villain's budget, it's quite possible.

There's another, rather more devious plan: a web of remote domination and viewing via the Necrotic Tumor line of feats from Libris Mortus.

Instead of them being able to be present, consider the Necrotic Cyst line of spells from Libris Mortis. Instead of the villain being with the party, all the villain needs to do is plant one of his cysts in a likely looking chap, and then cast Necrotic Domination every so often. (It's possible to do this without necrotic cysts, but they make the villain's life much much easier.)

Then, it can be the same evil master mind every time, but working through progressively more interesting henchmen. There are plenty of ways of finding adequate "heroes" or "big bad evil dudes" from a narrative standpoint, so long as they're adequately hinted at if the party looks for clues.

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