Holy Guns, Batman!

Welcome to Iconic Design, where we discuss the creation of exciting new character builds for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game!

 If you’ve savvy enough to be reading this rather obscure blog, you probably know what Know Direction is. Know Direction is a premiere Pathfinder news and reviews podcast hosted by Ryan Costello Jr. and Jeffery Jay Thacker (also known as Perram). They talk Pathfinder shop on occasion, bring listeners up to speed on community happenings, and they even interview big names in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game scene. I’m a fan of Ryan and Perram and I like to catch their podcast whenever I’m able to; especially live. (You can actually hear them talking about my opinions on the Crane Wing nerf in Episode 77 during the News Banter, long before I wrote this blog.)

 As a matter of fact, let’s talk about Episode 77. In this episode, Ryan and Perram are asked a question about a specific paladin archetype: the holy gun from Ultimate Combat. Perram quickly dismisses this archetype for being a poor choice, but that’s not at all the opinion I have of it. At a glance, I think that it is actually a decent option. So, how can we determine if this is a build worth making? By building one for ourselves and finding out, of course!

Build Concept

This section summarizes the build and its component options.

  • Holy Gun: The point of this article is to optimize the holy gun archetype. This is a brainless choice.
  • Mysterious Stranger: This is another obvious choice; it is an archetype that trades the gunslinger’s focus on Wisdom for Charisma. We’ll take it, but we won’t be taking much of this.

Early Levels (1–7)

All right, let’s get get this ball rolling. So for this build, I’m not assuming that you belong to a particular race. Why? Because race isn’t extremely important, that’s why! Human will be an excellent choice because you won’t be getting many feats with this build, but because we’re going to be making such heavy use of Dexterity and Charisma, I’d probably go with kitsune just because I love that race! Catfolk also aren’t a bad choice here as they both have a Dexterity and Charisma bonus too, but I also think that the kitsune’s Strength penalty hurts this build less than the Catfolk’s Wisdom penalty. But again, this is just my preference. You’ll want to invest your ability score advancements into either Dexterity or Charisma as you deem appropriate; Charisma is much more of a powerhouse score in this build than Dexterity, but Dexterity ensures that you hit and boosts the character’s worst saving throw: Reflex.

  • Classes: Gunslinger (mysterious stranger) 1/Paladin (holy gun) 6
  • Feats: Rapid Reload: pistol (1st), Extra Grit (Bonus Feat), Gunsmithing (Bonus Feat), Point-Blank Shot (3rd), Deadly Aim (5th), Rapid Shot (7th)
  • Abilities: Auras (Courage, Good), Channel Positive Energy (3d6/2; Variant Channel: Battle); Deeds (deadeye, focused aim, gunslinger’s dodge, smiting shot), Grit (Cha + 2), Divine Bond, Divine Grace, Divine Health, Gunsmith, Have Gun, Lay on Hands (Cha +3/Day; 3d6), Mercy (2),
  • Recommended 1st Level Paladin Spells: bless weapon, divine favor, longshot

Okay, let’s get one thing out of the way: roughly 75% of gamers do not know how the holy gun’s smiting shot works. Most players assume that smiting shot is identical to smite evil except that it requires a standard action to use and costs one grit to perform. In actuality, a holy gun adds her paladin level (or double her level if her target is an evil outsider, evil dragon, or an undead) plus her Charisma modifier on damage rolls: there is no bonuses on attack rolls to be found in smiting shot. At low levels, when you are only going to get one attack per smite anyway, this bonus is huge and it isn’t until 6th level, when the paladin receives her second attack, that a standard ability’s smite evil starts to pull away from the holy gun.

However, the holy gun has another huge benefit over the paladin: she can replenish her smites per day. How, you ask? A character with a grit pool replenishes one point from her pool whenever she confirms a critical hit or whenever she reduces an opponent to 0 or fewer hit points. With proper planning and a little luck, a holy gun can effectively mow down lower hit point foes all day because if she slays an opponent with her smiting shot, she gets the grit point back! Even if she ultimately runs dry, a critical hit or downing a foe restores a grit point to her pool. A standard paladin cannot make these claims; the only archetype in the game that grants additional uses of smite evil is the oathbound paladin’s oath of vengeance. No magic items, no feats, nothing else can do it, so the fact that a holy gun can smite all day with some planning is awesome.

There are a couple reasons I highly recommend multiclassing into mysterious stranger for this build, and some of them don’t pay off until the mid levels. Taking a level of gunslinger during this level range does have a few serious benefits, the first of which is Extra Grit. If a holy gun paladin gains gunslinger levels, she trades her Amateur Gunslinger feat for Extra Grit, meaning that the paladin now has a grit pool equal to 2 + her Charisma modifier. That’s two more smiting shots per day! Furthermore, the paladin gets a second discounted gun she can tinker but most importantly, she gains the mysterious stranger’s focused aim deed. At the cost of a swift action and one grit point, a mysterious stranger can add her Charisma bonus to all damage rolls she makes with firearms during the turn. While already amazing on its own because it scales independently of gunslinger levels, this ability is made even better because the holy gun can combine focused aim and smiting shot together, spending 2 grit points to add double her Charisma modifier and her paladin level on her firearm’s damage roll. This more than makes up for the one paladin level you lose gaining this stellar ability.

Let’s look at a 7th level holy gun’s smiting shot damage vs. a standard paladin’s smite evil damage for comparison. For this build, we’ll assume both paladins are using pistols so we can isolate the Smite Evil vs. Smiting Shot comparision. We’re not going to assume magic items, but we will assume divine bond. And even though I said on Wednesday that it is better to look at Practical Damage than simply Theoretical Damage, we’re only going to look at Theoretical Damage for this exercise (aka, we’re assuming that all attack rolls hit). The way firearms are designed, they practically always hit so it isn’t worth our time to investigate miss chances.

  • Paladin: 2d8+2 plus Deadly Aim (+4)  plus smite evil (+14) plus Point-Blank Shot (+2) = Average 29 Damage per Smite Evil
  • Holy Gun: 1d8+1 plus Deadly Aim (+4) plus Point-Blank Shot (+1) plus smiting shot deed (+10) plus focused aim (+3) = Average 23 Damage per Smiting Shot

As you can see, the paladin does pull ahead slightly of the holy gun; this happens at 6th level, when the paladin is able to make two attacks with his firearms. The holy gun’s only advantage is that she still has a move action to do what she wishes with.

Mid Levels (8 –14)

While the holy gun was doing well in the early levels, the standard paladin definitely started gaining the potential to out-scale it because it can make multiple attacks per round under its smite evil effect. Let’s see if the mid levels are any better to the holy gun.

  • Classes: Gunslinger (mysterious stranger) 1/Paladin (holy gun) 13
  • Feats: Rapid Reload (1st), Extra Grit (Bonus Feat), Gunsmithing (Bonus Feat), Point-Blank Shot (3rd), Deadly Aim (5th), Rapid Shot (7th), Quick Channel (9th level), Selective Channeling (11th), Precise Shot (13th)
  • Abilities: Auras (Courage, Good, Resolve), Channel Positive Energy (7d6/2; Variant Channel: Battle); Deeds (dead shot, deadeye, focused aim, gunslinger’s dodge, pistol whip, smiting shot, startling shot, targeting, utility shot), Grit (2(Cha) + 2), Divine Bond, Divine Grace, Divine Health, Gunsmith, Have Gun, Holy Grit, Lay on Hands (Cha +3/Day; 3d6), Mercy (4),
  • Recommended 1st Level Paladin Spells: bless weapon, divine favor, longshot
  • Recommended 2nd Level Paladin Spells: litany of righteousness, weapon of awe

Alex House Rule: At 11th level, a standard paladin receives aura of justice. As written, this aura does not function for the holy gun archetype because the holy gun does not possess smite evil. That said, the holy gun does receive the holy grit class feature at 11th level but it does not clarify which class feature (if any) it replaces. This guide is written with the assumption that holy grit was intended to replace aura of justice.

In midlevels the holy gun gains some of her most powerful tricks. By 14th level, the reason you took your level in gunslinger becomes obvious; you get holy grit, which grants the paladin a bonus number of grit points equal to her Charisma modifier if she is a multiclass gunslinger. A paladin with a Charisma of at least 20 (a +5 bonus) is going to have 12 grit points at 12th level with no real drawbacks. Once the holy gun gains Quick Channel, the reason I advised the selection of the channel battle variant becomes clearer; when she uses channel battle, the holy gun grants herself and her allies a channel bonus on damage rolls and critical confirmation rolls equal to the number of channel dice she possesses. By 14th level, this will be a +7 bonus, which is a huge buff. And most importantly, Quick Channel makes channel energy a move action, so the holy gun can load her gun (a free action), channel battle (a move action), and make a smiting shot (a standard action) while still finding time to use focused aim (a swift action). Assuming a +3 weapon and a Charisma of +5 by this stage of the game:

  • Paladin: 3d8+9 plus Deadly Aim (+24) plus Point-Blank Shot (+3) plus smite evil (+42) = Average 91.5 damage
  • Holy Gun: 1d8+3 plus Deadly Aim (+8) plus Point-Blank Shot (+1) plus smiting shot deed (+18) plus focused aim deed (+5) plus channel battle (+3) = Average 42.5 damage

So now we can really start to see the iterative attacks mechanic start to outpace the holy gun in terms of damage. Although it is impressive that the Holy Gun is able to hit just shy of half of the standard paladin’s damage potential with a single attack, our build assumes that you are giving up that free move action that you could normally lord over the standard paladin using channel battle. Buffing your allies is cool and all, but this is a little bit pathetic when compared to the standard paladin’s smite and the source of the problem is the hard one-attack limit of smiting shot.

Endgame (15+)

Okay, here we are at the endgame. Let’s see how the holy gun ends its game.

  • Classes: Gunslinger (mysterious stranger) 1/Paladin (holy gun) 19
  • Feats: Rapid Reload (1st), Extra Grit (Bonus Feat), Gunsmithing (Bonus Feat), Point-Blank Shot (3rd), Deadly Aim (5th), Rapid Shot (7th), Quick Channel (9th level), Selective Channeling (11th), Precise Shot (13th), Improved Critical (15th) , Improved Precise Shot (17th), Extra Lay on Hands (19th)
  • Abilities: Auras (Courage, Faith, Good, Resolve, Righteousness), Channel Positive Energy (10d6/2; Variant Channel: Battle); Deeds (clipping shot, dead shot, deadeye, expert loading, evasice, focused aim, gunslinger’s dodge, lightning reload, menacing shot, pistol whip, slinger’s luck, smiting shot, startling shot, targeting, utility shot), Grit (2(Cha) + 2), Divine Bond, Divine Grace, Divine Health, Gunsmith, Have Gun, Holy Grit, Lay on Hands (Cha +5/Day; 9d6), Mercy (6),
  • Recommended 1st Level Paladin Spells: bless weapon, divine favor, longshot
  • Recommended 2nd Level Paladin Spells: litany of righteousness, weapon of awe

So here we are at the end game for this character. How did it hold up? Well, in addition to get all of the cool defenses of the paladin, this holy gun build gets evasion, uncanny dodge, and improved uncanny dodge as its ‘capstone ability’ thanks to the holy grit class feature. But other then those neat tricks much is increasing this character’s damage. Let’s do another comparison using a +5 weapon and an ability modifier of +6.

  • Paladin: 4d8+20 plus Deadly Aim (+48) plus Point-Blank Shot (+4) plus smite evil (+80) = Average 170 damage.
  • Holy Gun: 1d8+5 plus Deadly Aim (+12) plus Point-Blank Shot (+1) plus smiting shot deed (+25) plus focused aim deed (+6) plus channel battle (+5) = Average 58 damage per smiting shot

Ouch. That’s actually pretty sad, really. You’re looking this archetype dealing just shy of 3x less damage than its standard archetype. That’s just said, and the reason is the paladin’s iterative attack mechanic. As a matter of fact, let’s compare the Holy Gun’s smiting shot damage to a standard full attack with the same character.

  • Holy Gun (Full Attack): 4d8+20 plus Deadly Aim (+48) plus Point-Blank Shot (+4) plus focused aim deed (+24) = Average 114 damage

So you can effectively double your damage by electing to NOT use smiting shot. Huh. Weird. This means that the only advantage to smiting shot is its ability to A) front-load a ton of damage into a single attack and B) ignore all types of damage resistance.

Other Notes

So now you might be wondering: is the holy gun playable? Surprisingly, the answer is yes; however in terms of raw damage the smiting shot deed simply isn’t useful once you gain the ability to make two attacks per turn; 7th level kills this deed. In the end, I don’t think Perram was correct in saying that this archetype is trash; it isn’t, especially when combined with that single level of gunslinger. However, I think the problem with this archetype is that it takes the iconic paladin class feature and guts it so miserably that it doesn’t even resemble itself. If smiting shot deed was a swift action that applied to all attacks the paladin made until the end of his turn, it would be worth using. But as written, it just can’t keep up with a full attack action.

Now, I don’t want to leave my readers on this low-note, so I’ll offer you one final solace: fixing the holy gun would not require a complete rewrite of the archetype of this ability. Here, I’ll even fix it for you in one fell swoop:

Smiting Shot Mastery (Combat, Grit)

You are able to land devastating strikes upon wicked foes using grit and righteous fury.

Prerequisites: dead shot deed, smiting shot deed, paladin level 11th

Benefit: When you use the dead shot deed, you may spend 1 additional grit point in order to add your Charisma bonus and your paladin level to the damage of the firearm attack. If the target of the attack is an outsider with the evil subtype, an evil-aligned dragon, or an undead creature, the bonus to damage increases to your Charisma plus 2 points per paladin level you possess. Regardless of the target, your dead shot automatically bypasses any DR the creature might have. This damage is not multiplied by dead shot deed.

This feat makes dead shot, which is earned by a holy gun at 11th level, a powerful attacking option. It essentially allows the paladin to full attack and make a smiting shot. Because grit can be recovered, I chose to not allow this bonus damage to be multiplied by the number of successful hits the paladin makes while using dead shot, but even without that this is a strong feat that costs a good bit of the holy gun’s resources (1 grit for dead shot, 1 grit for this feat) to use. In the end, a full attack with a smiting dead shot with 20 levels in this build can expect to see about 160 damage per round, which is very respectable; especially considering that gunmen hardly ever miss.

And there you have it; a functioning (if somewhat underwhelming) build for the holy gun. What do you think? Would you play the holy gun archetype despite the severe beating its smite evil ability takes, or would you rather play a standard paladin with a gun? Have you ever played the holy gun before? Would you consider it after reading this guide? Leave your answers and comments below!

Alexander “Alex” Augunas has been playing roleplaying games since 2007, which isn’t nearly as long over 90% of his colleagues. Affectionately called a “budding game designer” by his partner at Radiance House, Alexander is the author of the Pact Magic Unbound series (Radiance House) and a handful of other Third-Party Products. Before founding the Everyman Gaming blog, Alexander gained notoriety for writing the GM’s Guide to Challenging Encounters, which remains accessible to this day. His favorite color is blue, his favorite Pathfinder Race/Class combination is kitsune gunslinger, and his favorite pastime is staring creepily at Ryan Costello Jr. when he thinks he isn’t being watched.


10 thoughts on “Holy Guns, Batman!

  1. An interesting build (and your first non mythic Friday). Why do you think that the gun archetypes for classes are so much weaker than their non gun counter parts? you had to house rule a feat (which i plan on adopting btw) to make the damage output comparable to that of a stand alone paladin. The wizard’s gun archetype also is weird in this regard as well. Is it just that guns require a heavy feat investment to be worth it or that out side the gunslinger they are just a sub par option since they were not designed to work with classes other than the gunslinger?

    • Well, it’s mostly the gunslinger’s fault that the gun archetypes are so underwhelming. Firearm combat is designed with a similar philosophy to mounted combat in that it is a fighting style with tons of inherent penalties that are mitigated by various options. In this regard, the gunslinger and cavalier are similar classes because they both focus on one specific type of fighting style.

      The difference lies in how those penalties are mitigated. Mounted combat is wholly mitigated by feats that anyone can take, given they meet the prerequisites. The cavalier class further boosts mounted combat by providing additional bonuses. Firearms, on the other hand, have most of their penalties mitigated by gunslinger class features, specifically the deadeye deed and lightning reload deed. Where mounted archetypes like the dragoon fighter can still function because anyone can select the feats that are needed, most gun archetypes cannot select the most important deeds needed to make firearms shine, which results in suboptimal archetypes.

    • I have one Question. I cant find any rules that say it can’t, Does the Vital Strike Tree work with Smiting Shot.

      • No, it does not. Vital Strike only modifies the attack action. Smiting Shot is it’s own, seperate action. This is the same reason that you cannot Viyal Strike during a Spring Attack.

  2. Very interesting build it shows me more and more why I am not a fan of most archtypes and want a return to better prestige classes

    • I like archetypes as a mechanic; they have their merits. That said, archetypes that modify the “core” of a class tend to either be too strong or too weak unless they’re modifying it to point the class in a drastically different direction. For example, you don’t care about losing uses of Smite Evil from the hospitaler paladin archetype because if you’re taking that archetype, dealing buckets of damage isn’t your intention. However, both the holy gun and the standard paladin have the same purpose (deal damage to evil) and one of those options does it much, much better than the other.

      Given the number of Archetypes we have now, it makes sense that this is happening. It happened with Prestige Classes in 3.5 as well. This sort of power struggle is unavoidable in a game that is constantly growing and evolving.

  3. Something to help the Holy Gun archetype is double-barreled guns. Double-barreled guns can fire both barrels as a part of the same action. So the Holy Gun could, technically, use Smiting Shot and fire both barrels, getting the bonus damage on each shot.

    However, the damage gulf between the Holy Gun and a regular Paladin can open up even further because the Paladin isn’t using Rapid Shot nor are they Hasted, both effects of which the Holy Gun would not benefit from when using Smiting Shot. It’s kind of sad that because Smiting Shot is a specific Standard Action, it can’t even be combined with Vital Strike. As it stands, the Divine Hunter archetype is a better ‘gun fighter’ than the Holy Gun archetype.

    • And actually, double-barrel weapons don’t help the Holy Gun best the paladin for the very reason you mentioned: if the holy gun can use the weapon, so can the standard paladin. As a matter of fact, the double-barrel firearm makes the gulf even wider because the standard paladin can double shoot on all of its attacks. (A major design flaw of double-barrel weapons, in my opinion.)

      • True, but I see a GM allowing a Holy Gun to fire both barrels every round as a more likely scenario than a GM letting any Gunslinger fire both barrels every shot in a full attack.

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