Where Have All the Halfling Fighters Gone?

Welcome to the Gibbering Mouth article for May 28th, 2014. Today’s article is a Wednesday Rant; the topic is the apparent pigeonholing of races by ability scores.

I think most players have a “type” of character they like to play. This “type” is a basic representation of how the player interacts with the world. For me, that type is “skillful fighter.” For reasons even I don’t understand, magic bores me. I have one high magic character, a sorcerer, and I am content with him because spellcasters are fairly homogeneous. (The reason for this is a topic I will touch upon in another rant.) Martial characters can actually look and feel different based upon the choices you make in their build and class, so I prefer to play them.

As I’m sure you ALL have figured out by now, my favorite race to play is kitsune. There are a couple reasons for this: one, they’re close enough to human that my presence isn’t disruptive to the campaign. Two, they’re not human. Three, they represent something of a “challenging gameplay” mode because their racial traits are fairly unoptimized for the type of character I like to play. That’s right folks, I like playing kitsune in part BECAUSE of that Strength penalty, not in spite of it. And honestly, I wish more people felt the same.

Throughout our gaming community, there is a huge sentiment that you absolutely, 100% cannot be a member of a class if your race penalizes your key stat, or if it does you need to build your character in a way that this penalty doesn’t affect you, such as using Dexterity for attack rolls instead of damage rolls. Personally, I think this is a bit of a silly sentiment. Why? Well, let’s do some adventuring and find out.

The Value of +1

With only a few exceptions, most races have a penalty modifier of –2. In effect, that is a reduction of 1 from a specific ability score. Using my favorite race as an example, the kitsune effectively add +1 to all things Dexterity– and Charisma– based and subtract –1 from all things Strength based. For many gamers, these small, +1/–1 benefits are enough to mandate class choice. But what’s the value of this bonus, really? In all honesty, its not much.

Let’s backtrack to one of my early GM’s Guide articles: the Math Behind CR. In this article, I prove that a PC with level-appropriate wealth as a CR equal to its character level. Let’s take this knowledge and apply it to the Advanced Creature simple template. The Advanced Creature simple template adds +1 to the creature’s CR, but it does so with nothing more than numerical modifiers. Well, that’s perfect! How does it fare?

  • +4 to all ability scores.
  • +2 to natural armor.

So, adding 4 to EVERY ability score (effectively a +2 bonus on anything involving Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, or Charisma) isn’t enough to warrant a +1 to CR alone; it ALSO needs an Armor Class bonus. Taken into account, that means that a +2 bonus to an ability score is worth less than one-sixth of a class level, so when you take that penalty the overall modifier is also worth one-sixth less than a class level. Its not very valuable at all in terms of game mechanics, to the point where one of the cardinal secrets of monster design is, “Ignore Toughness; just make the creature’s ability scores whatever you need to get the stats you want.”

So if that’s the truth of ability scores, then why do we put so much weight into them?

Reason #1 – Prerequisites

A minor, but understandable, reason that people focus heavily on ability scores are prerequisites, specifically feat prerequisites. Although most feats don’t care about your ability scores, several very powerful or vital feats do. For example, Power Attack, arguably the most powerful and prized feat in the game, requires a Strength of 13 or better and while Combat Expertise isn’t a powerful feat, it is required for a large number of other feats and it requires an Intelligence of 13 or better. These are just some examples and while they certainly aren’t the only examples, these two feats are ones that need to be taken by many players because of how many combos they build off of.

Of the two of these feats, Power Attack is the big culprit. Pathfinder has few feats that provide a static bonus to damage, and Power Attack is basically the feat for martial classes. If you aren’t a fighter and don’t subscribe to teamwork, this is basically the only feat you can take that will directly increase your damage until you qualify for the Bleeding Critical feat, and even that feat is somewhat situational. Now, when we talk about prerequisites the conversation all but stops at feats. The other major game mechanic with prerequisites, Prestige Classes, very rarely has ability scores as a prerequisite. So, yeah, that’s a thing.

Reason #2 – Scarcity

Another major reason that people cherish ability score bonuses is that they are somewhat scarce in the game. Typically speaking, you receive a +1 to one ability score at 4th level and every 4 levels attained thereafter. Aside from that bonus, you can buy magical enhancement bonuses and if you’re really high level (and really rich) you can buy magical inherent bonuses too. Other then that, there aren’t many ways to boost your ability scores and for good reason. Ability score bonuses provide increases to MANY player statistics: several skills, special statistics like carrying capacity, hit points, skill points, and so on. When races take a penalty to an ability score and we see all of the negative influence that the race’s small –1 penalty brings, we get all worried and scared that our character is going to be weak and inept when really, its not. So then, where have all the halfling fighters gone?

A Matter of Size

Although it makes sense from a game perspective, one of the big problems in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game is the damage advancement by size table. This table is the only thing that makes enlarge person an effective spell. No, really. It is. Being under the effects of enlarge person has more penalties than bonuses but people really want the increased damage dice of being large. In reverse, people shy away from Small creatures as combatants in many classes because the reduction in damage dice size is very difficult to overcome. As a matter of fact, the best way to overcome being small is by being a member of a class where your weapon damage dice don’t matter much to your overall damage done, such as rogue, paladin, or cavalier: basically, any class with a large source of static damage bonuses.

Why is this? Well, it comes down to mathematics. If I’m a cavalier and a challenge my opponent, I get a bunch of extra damage against my foe regardless of how big I am. So if I’m a human cavalier doing 1d8 damage with my longsword + another 10 from challenge I’m not doing significantly more damage than the halfling cavalier doing 1d6 damage with his longsword + another 10 damage from challenge. The gap is less noticeable with a class like rogue, where all of the extra damage is random. Although mathematically the halfling’s maximum damage simply cannot outdamage the human’s maximum damage, the halfling can consistently equal or even beat the human when all of the damage done is variable. Although halflings moved away from their Tolkien roots somewhat over the past few decades, the synergy between the rogue’s class mechanics and the benefits (and penalties) of being small keeps the thief role an iconic part of gaming culture.

But is this a good thing?

That about wraps up my thoughts on size and ability score-based and size-based character building decisions. As someone who regularly builds Strength-based kitsune fighters, I really want to know your thought on this? Is race an aesthetic choice for you or do you pick your character’s build based on its ability modifiers? For example, do all of your elves use Weapon Finesse and ranged weapons? Are all of your orcs Strength-based meatheads? Leave your answers, comments, and questions below and I’ll be seeing you next time on Everyman Gaming!

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 investigator, and his motto is “Screw the rules, I’m a Game Designer!”

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11 thoughts on “Where Have All the Halfling Fighters Gone?

  1. Race definitely plays a mechanical concern for me, depending on what class I’m playing. For example, a race with penalty to Dex and Wis is a terrible choice for a monk, as so many of his abilities are Dex and Wis focused, and his AC is permanently 2 behind; and for a class that can’t wear armor, taking a penalty to Dex or Wis is just plain foolish.

    But, otherwise, I agree with you. I recently made up two halfling characters, one a paladin, one a ranger, as a married couple that slays giants. I used 15-pt buy and NPC wealth and I think they turned out pretty neat. Delia Giantbane (https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B_atBSSP60hQZ1BxLUphVEtRMWM/edit?usp=sharing) and Ortho Swift-Splinter (https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B_atBSSP60hQR21DVFl6eEt6emc/edit?usp=sharing). One of the really cool thing halfling martials have access is the feat Risky Striker (http://www.d20pfsrd.com/feats/racial-feats/risky-striker-combat-halfling) which is basically power attack, except the penalty is to AC, stays static at -1 and you don’t get a 3:1 return for two-handing; it also only applies to enemies two or more size categories larger (hint, nearly all of them at 10th level+). But a Str!halfling that two-hands with both Power Attack and Risky Striker can be an extremely mean combatant. It can even be used in conjunction with Dervish Dance builds to offset the lack of two-hand bonus from str and power attack. All things considered, with the existence of Halflings, one would imagine there would actually be *more* halfling fighters out there, not less.

    Gnomes, however, are screwed as a martial. Most of their unique stuff seems to shoehorn them into playing casters, which is kind of unfortunate. Most of the players in my group seem to have a special dislike of gnomes, unless they play ‘tricksters’ or ‘illusionists’ because of previous editions of the game where gnomes excelled at that role. I’d love to play a gnome martial that just blows their preconceptions out of the water, but it’s difficult to do so as they don’t have anything like Risky Striker to help them excel as a martial like halflings do.

    I don’t know if it was intentional, but the title of this article made me thing of that song Holding Out for a Hero by Bonnie Tyler 😛

  2. Also, my understanding as the primary reason for Enlarge Person is not the bonus damage, but the expanded reach the martial get. Being able to hit enemies without being hit is well worth the -2 to AC you take, I think, especially when combined with feats like lunge.

  3. ‘Throughout our gaming community, there is a huge sentiment that you absolutely, 100% cannot be a member of a class if your race penalizes your key stat…’ I run into this over, and over, and over again. I think that, and my lack of luck in finding players that value story over build, has contributed to the forehead-shaped dent in the wall near my desk…

  4. Re: halfling fighters, its funny you say that, because there are some people in my group that have played almost exclusively halfling everything, just to get the size bonus…

    Re: gnomes, I am playing kingmaker, and one player is rocking a gnome ranger. Her rapid shot is so good it is pretty much our primary DPS right now, and having speak with animals on hand has been a huge boon.

    Re: races not optimized for their class, I have yo say I pretty much exclusively pick my race to play something cool and exotic. In that same game I am playing a tengu wizard conjurer. No bonus to int means I started with only 16, not great for wizards who often rely on stats to boost DC. And the racial bonuses don’t compliment wizard at all. It’s super fun being able to swing any sword and speak all the languages though. I’m a firm believer in the god wizard (Google the guide), so high DCs isn’t the focus for my characters (and I often get to avoid feat taxes, which means more fun selections)

    • Also, I’m super curious about your ‘homogenized spellcasters’, and I wonder if it is based on blandness of class options, or ‘spell taxes’ (EVERYONE takes invisibility,don’t they?), or both (or neither?).

      To me, the flavor and flash of your spellcaster comes from your spell choices, which can be just as varied (if not more so) than a fighter’s feat selection. My tengu has bounced between battlefield pit-digger (love me some create pit!) And summoner (rhino stampede!). And the best part is tomorrow I could go a completely different rout and still be effective

      • I think what he means, is that when you compare 20+ wizards to each other, they’ve nearly all got the exact same spell selection. Like every Wizard takes spells like Glitterdust, Haste, Stoneskin, etc. because a super effective and always work. Unless a Wizard is playing very differently than other wizards (like one that focuses entirely on transmutation and polymorph spells to play like an arcane druid), you’re going to see roughly the exact same spells in Wizard spell books nearly every time.

        Granted, amongst martials you some of the same things happen. Certain feats and abilities are nearly universal, but many of the selections can drastically change amongst players.

        I’ve seen a couple of dozen wizards that have actual significant play time in Pathfinder, and I’ve seen roughly double that number in martials (we have large tables) in play. From my purely anecdotal experience, I can say that I have seen far more variance in the feel and play of martials, than I have in the wizards or clerics. Sure, the martials all revolve around the full attack, but they have lots of other things they can do, like playing a guerrilla character, or archer, or TWF, or Two-hander, or Sword and Board, or tripper, or grappler, or disarm specialist or switch-hitter. In a nutshell, they were all ‘full-attack’ characters, but the implementation of said full-attack were very different from others.

        Meanwhile, the casters all had nearly the exact same lists because those are the spells that work.

  5. From a Char Op and statistical perspective, I think you are probably right. The much more limited field of higher level spells in comparison to the lower levels certainly doesn’t help, I think. To be fair, I’ve never played in a campaign that went higher than 14 (in which I was playing, appropriately, a universalist binder/wizard/Anima Mage with access to the 3.5 spell compendium, so my build was all over the place anyway), so I’ve never had a chance to get into truly high lists and difficulties. Lack of high-level spell choice aside though, I do think it is at least partially up to the player to decide not to completely ‘net deck’ their caster. Do something a little different for the sake of your character concept, like taking all the pit and wall spells because your character is a ‘builder’.

    You are completely right about “effective” spellcasting though, and it makes me wonder exactly what can be done (or could have been done differently) to allow spellcasters to differentiate themselves from one another, or is it the opinion of the masses that the poor spellcaster is doomed to forever turn up at the party in the exact same shirt as all the other spellcasters?

  6. Is part of the problem mixing parties where some characters are built for maximum mechanical efficiency and others that are built for flavour? I imagine that GMing for a party who were flavour oriented would allow me to slightly reduce how lethal the play is, if there are characters built to take the maximum from the rules that would be more difficult to work around.

    • Good question, and one I’m not sure of. The only thing I can say is that there are certain spells regarded as ‘must haves’ because it’s hard to justify a reason for not taking them. It’s hard to justify not taking a spell like Haste, even if you have that school as an opposition school. Or spells like glitterdust, wall of force, heroism, blessings of fervor etc. The spells are just so good, it’d be like playing a martial 2-handed weapon wielder and not taking power attack.

      As a player, and a GM, I cannot justify intentionally gimping my character for flavor reasons. There is a time and place for nearly every character and you shouldn’t try and force your character into the wrong campaign. Like trying to play an Enchanter in an undead campaign; it’s just not going to work well.

      I’ve seen characters not select certain spells for various reasons, but I’ve never seen anyone not select the majority of the ‘go-to’ spells on a caster for flavor reasons. Like, at out table, we don’t use summoning spells often because we already have a large group as it is, or one character who, despite being a universalist, never selected necromancy schools for flavour reasons. However, these characters still took invsibility, black tentacles, wall of stone, enlarge person etc.

      When you’re playing a character who’s entire livelihood is finding monsters, killing them, and taking their stuff; it is very hard to justify preparing a spell that won’t help you survive such a situation over one that would. Melee characters, especially ones like fighters, don’t have such limitations as a single bad feat choice, or even two, isn’t going to cripple them. You take a barbarian, and strip him of all his feats, and he’s still a powerhouse of a martial character. He can still fight, and survive, and live to make it back to town. A caster is basically nothing without their spells, however.

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