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Saturday, 14th July, 2012, 10:05 AM #1
The Great Druid (Lvl 17)
Pathfinder Review: Advanced Race Guide
It’s summer time at last. The sun is scorching, the humidity is rising and summer game convention season is in full swing.
Last weekend at Paizocon 2012, Paizo announced a number of forthcoming new products and they will fill in some new details at the Future of Paizo seminar at Gencon 2012 as well. In particular, we can expect to hear more about next year’s hardcover lineup. Last weekend, Paizo announced: “Ultimate Campaign” a new book aimed at GMs featuring rules for Kingdom management and mass combat; a faux leather-bound Collector’s Version of the Rise of the Runelords; the Reign of Winter Adventure Path; and Pathfinder Battles Miniatures: Shattered Star. We have had a lot information thrown our way lately - and that’s before we even get to the discussion of the forthcoming Virtual TableTop “Paizo Gamespace” (and contrast that announcement with this past week’s announcement of WotC cancelling a similar software offering for D&D).
News is nice, but announcements are only that - announcements. The real proof is in the release of the promised products.
Which brings us to the subject of this week's review, the first of three new hardcovers coming our way from Paizo this summer.
First off, the Advanced Race Guide departs from the naming scheme of two recent hardcover rulebooks – and the next two for that matter. We had Ultimate Magic and Ultimate Combat delivered in 2011 and next month brings us the Ultimate Equipment. In or about May/June 2013, we should expect to see Ultimate Campaign, too. So why wasn’t the Advanced Race Guide called “Ultimate Races”? Well, it turns out that was originally supposed to be the name and it was announced at PaizoCon 2011 under that title. Unfortunately, a little slip of the tongue during the announcement and “Ultimate Races” sounded a whole lot like “Ultimate Racist”. That easily repeated faux pas was all it took to persuade Erik Mona and Co. that perhaps that wasn’t the best possible title for a book after all. The title of the book was promptly renamed to the Advanced Race Guide ("ARG").
Be that as it may, the substance of the book has not changed and the Advanced Race Guide as shipped weighs in at 256 pages and is roughly broken up into four parts.
Part I: Core Races
Part I, “Core Races” is certainly the aspect of the book which is likely to be the most used and widely adopted by players and GMs across the board in home brewed campaigns, Adventure Paths and in the Pathfinder Society Organized Play program.
The approach taken in the first 75 pages of the book is to present a bevy of new options for each of the seven standard Core Races in Pathfinder RPG: Dwarves, Elves, Gnomes, Half-Elves, Half-Orcs, Halflings and Humans. While the entries for each race differs somewhat in terms of the overall number of each of the new options, Part I typically presents racial traits, alternate racial traits, new archetypes and what are termed as new "racial rules" for each of the Core Races.
An Elegant Design
Racial traits are relatively straightforward and are mostly a restatement of the racial traits that each of the core races receive in the Core Rulebook, albeit with some more flavor and detail. The real purpose of these entries is to serve as a ready reference and reminder to the reader of the "default" racial traits that are modified in the section which immediately follows it in "Alternate Racial Traits".
We have seen Alternate Racial Traits presented previously, most notably in the Advanced Player Guide; however, the concept is expanded upon and more fully fleshed out in the ARG.
The essential mechanic is to take a "standard" racial trait like "stonecunning", say, from the Dwarves and remove it, inserting another racial trait in substitution for it of a similar power level with a flavor and that makes sense. Wash, rinse, repeat across the whole spectrum of most of the Core Races. It is 's the same mechanical approach that Class Archetype designs employ in Pathfinder RPG, except instead of class abilities being swapped out, it's a racial trait instead.
Mechanically, there is an rational elegance to this approach and it's easy to eyeball whether or not the new Alternate Racial Trait is "balanced" or not. In terms of the "crunch", this approach works quite well. If that's all the new alternate racial traits were, then I suppose that would be "good enough". However, that's not what the Alternate Racial Traits are actually all about -- it's merely the mechanical way in which they are implemented.
The real purpose of Alternate Racial Traits is to allow for implementation of entirely new racial subtypes within the Core Races, each with a somewhat distinctive flavor. Indeed, one of the challenges which face all RPGs is how to allow for an implementation of varied interpretations of standard fantasy races as they are presented across a wide and diverse spectrum in fantasy fiction. That's what the new Alternate Racial Traits allow for and it works extremely well.
Can you Pass the Salt?
One of my favorite offerings in the ARG are the new class archetypes which appear in each of the Core Race sections. AS is the case with all class archetypes, there are some hits and misses, but in my view the hits well outnumber the misses.
The approach taken with the archetypes thematically ties into the subject matter of the book. Instead of presenting a generic new class archetype, the spin on these new archetypes is deeply rooted in the racial aspect of the class, which is invariably a pre-requisite to the archetype.
In total, 29 new "racial archetypes" are included and for the most part they work well. Generally speaking, the ones that don't stand out are the archetypes which aren't particularly well defined by the race of the new archetype.
One of the nostalgic aspects of the racial archetypes is that a few of them are a "shout out" to Basic D&D where one could play a "23rd level Dwarf" -- where "Dwarf" was not simply the race, it was the class, too. Apart from this limited nostalgia aspect, the racial archetypes provide a solid base upon which to build a character -- whether it is a NPC or a PC. When combined with the flavor and impact of the Alternate Racial Traits, the racial archetypes provide GMs with the tools to create distinctive, unique and memorable NPCs. Like anything else, the secret to using these new "flavor tools" effectively is to resist the siren call to introduce them en masse and to instead limit their use and employ them sparingly. This is powerful flavoring, but it's salt -- not meat. If you add too much of it, all you will be able to taste is the salt. Less is more.
Lurking Power Creep
The remainder of each of the Core Race entries is an uneven presentation of new feats, new spells and new magic items, loosely grouped under the heading "New Racial Rules". If there is a problem with Part I of the book, here is where you will find it. Power creep is present in many of these new "racial rules" -- and some of them aren't even "racial rules" at all.
For example, a new magic item in the Gnomes section, Amazing Tools of Manufacture permits the crafting of 2,000 g.p. worth of a base item in one hour's time, instead of the far more uncertain formula presented in the Craft skill section of the Core Rules which measure the work produced by an entire week's worth of labor. While this powerful item will not result in a massive change in the typical power balance in the game, it is a stealth rewrite of the crafting system in Pathfinder RPG. Moreover, apart from a catchy illustration, there is absolutely nothing which restricts the item to Gnomes. It's simply listed in that section of the book, that's all.
A more lethal and subtly unbalancing magic item is presented in the Dwarven Core Race section. Elixir of Darksight dares to go where few rules in Pathfinder have gone before. The Elixir, available for a mere 1,200 g.p., grants the imbiber double her normal range for darkvision (yes, we've seen this mechanical effect granted before). However, the kicker is that the Elixir of Darksight also grants the ability for that darkvision to operate in Deeper Darkness. We have not seen that sort of effect before in the game and the ability to See in Darkness has been, hitherto, carefully restricted to Devils and those few rare Tieflings who are devil-spawn.
If this doesn't sound sinister to you, then you haven't thought the implications all the way through. A fifth level evil half-orc cleric armed with an Elixir of Darksight is a true force to be reckoned with if encountered underground. Because of the way that Deeper Darkness works, it is more powerful than Improved Invisibility as Deeper Darkness makes it more difficult to escape from the foe and the party's interaction with the environment is rendered more dangerous. No, it doesn't change the game or shake its very foundations - but that's not the way power creep works as it seeps into a game system. The fact remains that the effect of a cheap Elixir of Darksight on a low to mid-level game is perhaps the best example of pernicious power creep in the ARG.
Overall, Part I of the ARG is a section that mostly works and works well with a few exceptions. But that's the rub: the problem is that which of these variants doesn't work will vary from GM to GM. Because the alternate racial traits and archetypes carry so much flavor with them, I can easily foresee that many GMs will have difficulty with how a given racial variant fits into their world. It's the most problematic theme which emerges throughout the ARG and is inherent to the subject matter of a book which is premised upon racial variants. When it comes to races, new variants aren't just an example of "rule-making"; rather, it's a whole lot of implicit "world building", too.
Part II: Featured Races
Part II of the book, "Featured Races" brings us into less common, but still familiar terrain. Rather than present new alternate traits, archetypes and rules for the Core Races, "Featured Races" presents sixteen new races for use as NPCs -- and PCs -- in Pathfinder RPG. All of these featured races are well familiar to the genre and have a long history in the game. Several have already been presented in their own 32 page Player Companions previously. The Featured Races included in the ARG are: Aasimars, Catfolk, Dhampirs, Drow, Fetchlings, Goblins, Hobgoblins, Ifrits, Kobolds, Orcs, Oreads, Ratfolk, Sylphs, Tengus, Tieflings, and Undines.
ARG devotes six pages to each of these Featured Races. While providing less detail and fewer new options than are presented for the Core Races, the information on each "Featured Race" is more than sufficient to mechanically describe the race and how it should play. Once again, new racial traits, variants and archetypes are presented , along with some new "rules" -- be they equipment, feats, magical items or spells.
Many GMs will have no problem allowing PCs to use a character drawing upon a new Featured Race into his or her campaign. Like all things, "it depends" and table variation is expected to be high and this is hinted at in the introduction to this section in the ARG. What seems just fine to one GM will be objectionable as all hell to another for flavor reasons. Again, this aspect of the game arises because this is not just rule making -- it's about world building.
I Wield Two Scimitars and my Animal Companion is a Black Panther...
For those of you who recall my review of Blood of Fiends , a 32 page Player Companion devoted to the Tieflings, I was rather taken with the idea behind at least one of the "featured races". However, the problem in using any of these in a campaign is potentially threefold: (1) blatant Power Creep; (2) the "Menagerie Effect" (where the party of heroes begins to resemble a traveling group of circus freaks instead of an adventuring party); and (3) "Drizz't Syndrome", perhaps the worst problem of all. Indeed, when it comes to a few of these featured races (Tiefling, Drow and Dhampirs) use of the "new" featured race in actual play will often default into the trope of "bad guy outcast who turns to the light".
Let's be blunt: this has an undeniably cheesy sameness to it. While there will be many exceptions, a large number of players might as well just bring their Drizz't miniature to the game and stop pretending otherwise. I'm sure for many players and GMs who have not done this before, it will all be great fun. However, for the veterans at the table who have seen this more times than they prefer to count? Not so much.
Part III: Uncommon Races
Having moved through an expansion on the familiar Core Races and the still familiar territory traversed in the Featured Races section, Part III of the ARG decides to throw down the weird. This section presents fourteen races that include several fantasy races many (if not most) of you are probably unfamiliar with.
The Gnomes with the Big Noses...
The Uncommon Races presented in the ARG are: Changelings, Duergar, Gillmen, Gripplis, Kitsune, Merfolk, Nagaji, Samsarans, Strix, Sulis, Svirfneblin, Vanaras, Vishkanyas, and Wayangs. I don't know about you, but several of these races were newish to me. I'm sure I had seen them before in one of the Bestiaries or in some Monster Manual or Fiend Folio from a past version of D&D, but if so, I had forgotten most of the particulars about the race.
The treatment accorded to the Uncommon Race entries in the ARG is significantly shorter at only two pages each. While there are no stat blocks as such, with the headings and formatting and racial traits' boxed text, there isn't that much more information presented on the race than you might expect to find in a Bestiary monster entry.
While each of the Uncommon Races might be used as a base to create a player character, the overall brevity of the racial treatments lends itself far more readily to NPC use at the table. While I am sure that was intentional on the part of Paizo, I think it's only fair for a prospective purchaser to not get oversold on the number of truly "PC appropriate" races that are included in the ARG. At any rate, by the time we get to implementing Player Characters using Part III of the book, the campaign SUV has clearly gone off-road.
Part IV: Race Builder
Part IV of the ARG is "advanced" in tone and is experimental. Following in the unsatisfactory footsteps of D&D 3.0's Savage Species, Part IV of the ARG presents a rather thorough mechanical system replete with examples in how to implement almost any monster presented in a Bestiary entry and quantify its power level for use as a NPC or PC race.
Part IV was the subject of a public play test last year. While it is debatable in terms of how valuable such feedback is (and how much it is actually used) by Jason Bulmahn and the rest of Paizo's design staff, the major routes and thoroughfares in Part IV of the ARG have been publicly discussed for some time.
6 + 4 +3 +2 +2 +4 = 21 RP* (*approximately)
The core of the mechanics presented in the Race Builder is a numerical system to analyze and numerically value and quantify the overall "build" of the custom race. This was attempted before in Savage Species with far less satisfying results. The essence of the approach taken in Savage Species was to value the "power" of the monster NPC/PC by adding some number to the CR of the character at all power levels.
The problem with the approach taken in Savage Species was that the kludgey nature of the +CR system in that book was then presented as specialized, balanced, and exact when it was, in fact, ad hoc, arbitrary and imprecise. It wasn't balanced but pretended that it was. It's one thing to present something that is inherently dodgey as dodgey -- it's quite another to present it as a balanced system. Savage Species never really worked well and perhaps that explains why Ver 3.0 was never re-mastered for version 3.5 after it went out of print.
In contrast, the Race Builder is a more refined and nuanced approach in its mechanical analysis, but at the end of the day -- Paizo knows that the practical implementation of the Race Builder system is inherently imprecise. A clever min/maxer can game the system and create a somewhat lower point "racial build" that leverages the numerical quirks in order to make something appear to be numerically less powerful than it really is. The Race Builder accepts this limitation. What the Race Builder deliberately avoids doing is assigning any intrinsic CR value which applies across the board at all power levels to whatever is created with it.
Instead, the numerical system presented in the book provides rough guidelines which break down into three analytical categories: standard, advanced and monstrous power levels. The average party level is calculated and then modified, depending upon the level of the party and the Resource Points in the custom race. A chart is used to then adjust the overall appropriate CR to throw at that party (see the sidebar on p. 219), depending on the average level of the party. The higher the APL of the party, the less impact a custom race will have on the CR.
Half the Battle is As Good as it Ever Gets
As for how successful this implementation of custom races proves to be will take more time in the wild to evaluate. Any point-based design system can be gamed and min/maxed. The real test in terms of its value-in-use is whether or not the GM can guesstimate on a numerical basis how powerful a party is which includes custom races. My impression is that as with all things in terms of encounter design, it is as much an art as it is a science -- but the Race Builder does its level best to get half of the solution right.
The other component to calculating the effective power level of a party is inherently subjective and difficult to readily quantify. In short: it takes experience for a GM running for a particular group of players to really understand what they can do. No book or analytical toolbox is going to change that reality. If a designer can get it half right? He's done as well as you can reasonably expect.
In terms of the artwork and overall presentation of the book, I found the ARG to be artistically uneven. Often, the artwork used in the racial illustrations was not original and has appeared in print at Paizo before. This is not a bad thing in and of itself and given the sheer volume of material that Paizo has now released, my guess is that only hardcore fans will be able to identify in which book a particular illustration was first published.
Of greater concern was the clashing art styles employed in the book. More traditional Paizo art styles were followed with pastel illustrations and interspersed with more anime inspired artwork. The impression left by that approach was unsatisfactory to me. No matter what art style you may prefer, you can be certain that the ad hoc approach towards the art used in the ARG will mean that there are illustrations in a style that you won't like. Moreover, no matter which art style you as a gamer may prefer, there is a disharmony which results from the mixing of these art styles.
How to Use this Book...?
But perhaps my greatest complaint about the book is that all of my above comments and warnings about flavor and the potential negative impact that these clashing flavors and ad hoc world building can have upon a campaign just aren't discussed in the ARG at all. It's not the material which was included that is objectionable in this regard -- it's the section that wasn't included. If you are looking through the Table of Contents trying to locate the eight-page section on "Using this Book"? You will be looking for a damn long time because it's just not there -- and it should have been.
Perhaps Paizo felt that it was obvious that they were leaving a loaded gun on the bedside table. In this analogy , it follows that there is little point to warning people that "guns are dangerous". Or it may be that approaches to GM style are so critical to determining how the book "should" be used that there is no real consensus on the topic. "How this Book Should be Used" becomes a disguised chapter for a preachy sermon on the writer's preferred play style.
Maybe. Still, I think the overall "say nothing" approach to the subject of how each Part of the ARG should be used reflects poorly on the ease of use of the material. If the problems presented by using the material at the table are complex and so inherently subjective that they defy quantification and explanation -- then at least have the guts to say it. It isn't okay to just whip up a salty froth of crunchy numbers and release it in to the dining room on a covered plate. Tell it like it is and serve it up in the open.
You Say Tomayto, I say Tomahto
Despite these shortcomings, there is a lot in the ARG to like. Just as certain, there is a lot to be indifferent towards and some material to outright dislike, too. The crux of the matter is that the inclusion of so much of this material is highly subjective. What I like in a new player race is not going to necessarily be what you like, let alone what another player may prefer. There is a vast and expansive taste palette here and for everybody the specifics are different. I think this practical effect was unavoidable given the subject matter of the Advanced Race Guide. Indeed, it's inherent to the very idea of an Advanced Race Guide. It doesn't mean the book is bad-- but it does mean that the book is different.
In that regard, I think the ARG differs from all other hardcover rulebooks in the Pathfinder product line. Previous expansion hardcover books which Paizo has released are typically declared to be "in use" at the table -- or not -- as a GM might prefer. In some cases, specific chapters of a book might be declared to be in use (or not) as a GM might prefer. However, in the case of the ARG, I think the choice needs even more refinement than that, and declaring "Part I legal, but not Parts II and III" probably overstates the ease with which this new Part I material can be integrated into an ongoing homebrewed or Golarion based AP campaign.
In the end, the ARG is a worthwhile book and I do recommend it to players and GMs alike, but you need to understand that there will be a lot of picking and choosing with the new options presented in the ARG. I think it's fair to say that for a lot of GMs, everything in the ARG should be deemed "optional" and it will require a review by those GMs before a specific alternate trait, archetype or race is declared suitable for inclusion in the campaign. Provided you are okay with that, you should buy the Advanced Race Guide.
Title: Advanced Race Guide
Author: Jason Bulmahn et al
Price: $39.99 Hardcover $9.99 PDF
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