Welcome to the Gibbering Mouth article for April 30th, 2014. Today’s article is a Wednesday Rant; the topic is racial archetypes.
I’m going to try my very best to avoid ranting too much in this article, but this is a topic that I am very passionate about. I’m going to avoid all of the cutesy lead-in and flat-out state that I HATE THE ADVANCED RACE GUIDE.
There, I said it.
Now, let me clarify. I have no problem with any of the book’s content in terms of its mechanics. Most of the archetypes are balanced quite well, as are the feats and magic items. (Most, not all. I’m looking at you, swordmaster rogue.) I’m not even fully against the concept of racially restricted options. Not fully, anyway.
You see, here’s the problem with restricting something by race. Nine times out of ten, you create an option that you’ve pigeonholed into one specific race with special powers that no one else can get. And most of the time, there is no reason that no other race should be bared from taking your option. Most of the time.
Anecdote #1: Gibbenzgob
A friend of mine has a character that he absolutely adores: the goblin paladin Gibbenzgob. This character has been one of my friend’s favorites for nearly a decade; he’s based around the idea of nature versus nurture, answering the question: “Is Evil something innate within us or something that we learn to accept?” An elven paladin adopted Gibbenzgob as an infant after his tribe was wiped out for raiding a nearby elven city. Although he was scorned for doing so, the elf taught Gibbenzgob everything he knew and by virtue of his status, the paladin and his father/squire were basically left to themselves. He’s been a fun character to adventure alongside of in Wrath of the Righteous. (The campaign that I’m playing my crazy multiclass carnivalist rogue in.)
When we sat down to build our characters, my friend told me his character’s ultimate goal: to convert as many goblins as possible to a Lawful Good lifestyle under his god. Thinking hard, I recommended the redeemer archetype. He loved the idea of gaining a Diplomacy bonus with monstrous races. There’s just one problem: the archetype was half-orc only. It fit his character perfectly, but according to the book, the archetype was more suited for one type of savage race (half-orc) than another (goblin). The story ultimately has a happy ending. The GM agreed that the archetype made sense for the character and allowed my friend to be a goblin redeemer, redeeming first and smiting second.
When Are Racial Restrictions Okay?
I’m actually not 100% against racial restrictions on player options. It just needs to be done well. Let’s look at some racial options that make sense as restricted choices.
- Good Archetype – Caravan Sniper (Drow): The Caravan Sniper fighter archetype is the best example of an appropriate racial archetype out there. Why? Because this archetype goes out of its way to include the drow’s racial abilities in the archetype. If you’ve never seen the caravan sniper, check it out. It allows the drow to effectively spellstrike with her spell-like abilities when firing crossbow bolts. It is absolutely, 100% impossible for me to argue against this archetype as a racial option because it takes the time to specifically work itself in with the race’s racial traits. I’ve implied it once, now I’ll directly state it: building off flavor doesn’t work for racial archetypes because you can’t be certain that some other race or culture doesn’t qualify for that exact same flavor. When you build racial options off of racial traits, you can’t go wrong.
- Okay Archetype – Naga Aspirant (Nagaji): The Naga Aspirant druid archetype is one that I would consider to be “okay” at best. The archetype gives the nagaji druid naga-themed powers, allowing him to transform into a naga using wild shape. This example isn’t perfect. It doesn’t really fit in with the nagaji’s racial traits. That said, it is hard to imagine any other race wanting to transform into a nagaji. This archetype is so strongly tied into the nagaji racial identity that it isn’t an utter wash of an archetype should one want to restrict it specifically to nagaji. Few other races willingly serve naga, so this one works out well.
- Bad Archetype – Experimental Gunsmith (Gnome): The experimental gunsmith gunslinger archetype fits squarely into the bad category. It doesn’t have anything to do with the gnome’s racial traits and its only real connection to the gnomish race is through their love of experimenting. This archetype really ends up feeling like the World of Warcraft gnome archetype and as far as my copy of the Inner Sea World Guide will tell me, gnomes don’t even live in the Mana Wastes, the birthplace of Golarion’s firearms. Ultimately what should have been a cool, fun archetype for anyone is now needlessly saddled to the gnomish race.
- Terrible Archetype – Buccaneer (Human): The Buccaneer gunslinger archetype is horrendous. This archetype goes beyond the experimental gunsmith in its levels of bad because it takes what is clearly a universal concept idea and hitches it off to one specific race. The race, in this case, is humans. If you take the time to sit down and read the archetype, the buccaneer is your stereotypical romantic pirate, complete with parrot or monkey familiar. I’m not sure what Paizo was trying to say when they claimed that only human gunslingers could be pirates, but it’s not a sound argument at all. In retrospect, I would put this archetype beneath the stonelord in terms of how bad it is.
Let’s take the same scale and look at racial feats.
- Good Racial Feat – Fortunate One (Halfling): This feat adds to the number of times per day that the halfling can use a specific racial trait. That’s awesome! Improving racial traits is something that feats and abilities seldom do in Pathfinder, so to see it in the flesh is a nice change of pace. This is exactly what a racial feat should look like.
- Okay Racial Feat – Risky Striker (Halfling): This feat is essentially Power Attack, except it penalizes AC and only works against attacks that are larger than you. Technically being small is a racial trait, but really? Only halflings can take risks against larger opponents? Not goblins and kobolds, who are both infinitely more suicidal than halflings according to their racial profiles. This is a great example of a racial feat that is supported by racial traits but not by flavor or effect.
- Bad Racial Feat – Nimble Striker (Catfolk): This one starts out good in that it requires a catfolk racial trait, but when you get right down to it, this feat is not one that needed to be catfolk only because all it does is nullify the AC penalty associated with several feats. Off the top of my head, goblins have a better racial Dexterity bonus than catfolk, so why isn’t this a goblin feat? This is an example of a feat that makes sense but ultimately provides benefits that are unrelated to race.
- Terrible Racial Feat – Focused Shot (Elf, Half-Elf): This racial feat allows you to make a ranged attack with a bow as a standard action and add your Intelligence modifier to the weapon’s damage roll. Words can’t express how much this feat shouldn’t be restricted to elves. Clearly the only reason it has this restriction is that elves have an Intelligence bonus and gain proficiency with bows for free. But other then that, there’s no elven flavor here. It’s just a feat that’s unexplainably for elves only.
On Racial Prestige Classes
I felt the need to make this a separate topic because honestly, I think that Prestige Classes are BEST suited for racial options so long as the option is justified. A great example is the Skyseeker Prestige Class for dwarves out of Paths of Prestige. This Prestige Class offers few abilities that couldn’t be obtained elsewhere and instead offers its benefits as a direct extension of the dwarf mentality. It includes enough dwarf in all of its abilities that its acceptable as a racial prestige class in a way that arcane archer could never justify. Anyone should be able to master arcane archery, but acting as the inheritor of an ancestral quest to reclaim the glory of your people feels more prestigious and is more in-line with the dwarven race.
Racial Options Done Right — Blood of the Moon
So I’ve spent a lot of time bashing the Advanced Race Guide. Is it possible for Paizo to handle racial options correctly? The answer is, “Heck yes!” You can see that Paizo has learned a lot about designing options for races since the Advanced Race Guide when reading Blood of the Moon. Blood of the Moon is a 32-page product that focuses upon introducing a new race to the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, the skinwalker. The skinwalker is basically the descendent of lycanthropes and has the ability to transform into a specific lycanthropic form.
Why is Blood of the Moon so much better than the Advanced Race Guide? I want to talk more about Blood of the Moon in depth at a later date, but here’s the short run of it: no option in the book is specifically for skinwalkers only; everything is simply more common among skinwalkers. Nothing in the book feels like it should be limited to skinwalkers, so it isn’t. That’s really the run of how racial abilities should be designed. If you can honestly look at me and say that an option should not be selectable by anything but this one, specific race, then that’s cool. I’ll buy its restriction. But if the restriction doesn’t make sense, you’ve done two things. One, you’ve potentially alienated a fan by telling him that his fantasy doesn’t mesh with your racial expectations (like Gibbenzgob) and two, you’re effectively writing content that only a small fraction of your player base can use. Is that really the best use of your precious wordage?
And that about wraps up my thoughts on racial options for this installment of the Wednesday Rave. What do you think? Should more archetypes and options be limited by race? Fewer? Are racial restrictions a good thing or a poor thing? What are your favorite racially restricted archetypes and why? Leave your answers and comments below, and I’ll see you next week! Don’t miss it!
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 knight of Ozem, and his least favorite thing to design is racial options. Unless those options are for kitsune!