Archetype Design

Welcome to the Gibbering Mouth article for March 5th, 2014. Today’s article is a Freelancer Foci; the topic is Archetype Design.

Huzzah! New article type! In my Freelancer Foci articles, I’m going to be talking a bit about design elements for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. Things I’ve learned, things I’ve learned not to do, and other bits of useful tips and pieces of information to get your game design feeling as tip-top as possible!

For our first article, we’re starting with archetypes.

Archetype Run-Down

An archetype is a package of special class features and abilities specifically designed for one (sometimes two) classes that replaces a specific subset of class features with the set offered by the archetype. Archetypes were first introduced in the Advanced Player’s Guide and have their design intent based off of the old character kit concepts from 2nd Edition Dungeons and Dragons.

In the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, archetypes are typically designed in favor over fully expanded base classes. Let’s give a quick rundown as to the advances and disadvantages of designing an archetype over a base class.



  • Short and Sweet: Archetypes are quick and to the point. Archetypes don’t usually take up more than a page of design space whereas a class often needs several pages.
  • Class +1: Archetypes are excellent if your class is very similar to an existing class with just a few minor tweaks here or there.
  • Inherently Balanced: Archetypes make for a more balanced multiclassing experience than you would find from multiclassing. For example, you can regulate the character’s base attack bonus and saving throws a bit better and you don’t have to worry about your player doubling up on an ability that would put them ahead of the pack, such as multiclassing into two or three classes that granted sneak attack at 1st level to have +3d6 damage at 3rd level.
  • Concept from Level 1: You are immediately your character from level 1; no waiting around to multiclass into other classes to be who you want to be!


  • Cookie Cutter: Archetypes often take away player choice. Every member of every archetype needs to select every feature of the class in a specific order, meaning that every fighter with the two-weapon warrior play very similarly to one another. This is most prominent in classes like paladin or cavalier that already do not have much inherent choice to them.
  • Interaction with Prior Abilities: Plenty of archetypes in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game trade one ability while forgetting to trade or alter an ability that later builds upon that same ability. Plenty of FAQs needed to happen to explain about how one resolves this problem. For example, an FAQ announced that if a magus trades spell recall but not improved spell recall, then he instead gains spell recall at 11th level instead of improved spell recall. Excellent ruling, but its not mentioned anywhere in the book, meaning that players need to peruse the Internet in order to learn about this. (Note, this example applies to all classes, not just the magus.)

Archetype Design Tips
So after reading all of that, let’s talk about some things to keep in mind when designing archetypes.

  • Like for Like: When designing an archetype, one of the most important rules is to trade similar abilities for one another. Specifically, trade offensive abilities for offensive abilities, defensive abilities for defensive abilities, and non-combative abilities for non-combative abilities. An excellent example of this comes from the bard: many bard archetypes trade bardic knowledge (a skill bonus equal to half the bard’s level) for the same skill bonus on a different list of class skills, usually combined with a small benefit to mirror bardic knowledge’s “make all Knowledge checks untrained” aspect.
  • General to Specific: Generally speaking, an archetype’s powers should be “more specific” than the base class’s. For example, a fighter normally gets to pick a very wide variety of weapon trainings, so a fighter archetype will often trade that bonus for a more specific one as a balancing factor. The bonus itself often does not change, but restricting how that bonus functions or can be applied will often make things a bit more balanced in the long run. For example, a mobile fighter gains benefits similar to weapon training when he moves 10 or more feet in a round, which is more specific than weapon training.
  • Future Trades are a Bad Idea: You do not want to trade an ability on Tuesday for a bonus today. That is the hallmark of a min-maxer’s best friend, especially if it is a bonus that you can take once and then never really pay the piper for because you multiclassed into something else. As a theoretical example, if a paladin archetype allowed you to trade aura of resolve for a bonus feat at 1st level, why would you avoid that archetype? That bonus feat is a huge power boost to the paladin that he didn’t have to pay for in the present. All abilities that an archetype gives you should have some form of cost in the here and now, even if that cost is tied to a different ability earned at the same level.
  • Avoid Trading too Much: There are archetypes out there that drastically alter a class. If you have a rogue archetype that trades sneak attack for challenge, rogue talents for bonus feats, and evasion, uncanny dodge, improved uncanny dodge, trapfinding, and trap sense for something else, then what’s left of your class to be a rogue? When you write an archetype, it needs to be mechanically grounded to its base class, or else why aren’t you just making an entirely new class anyway? For a prime example of this, see the changes made to the gunslinger between the Ultimate Combat playtest and the final version: it literally went from an alternate class (an expanded archetype) to a base class in its own right because of how different the two classes were from one another.
  • When Broken, Sum of Parts is Less than the Whole: This tip is in regards to breaking the other tips mentioned above. Whenever you break one of the rules, whatever you gain should be less than what you give. For example, if you want to trade bravery, a small bonus on specific types of saving throws, for an offensive bonus (normally a no-no) then the offensive bonus that you receive should be unquestionably worse than bravery. For example, bravery scales, so maybe your offensive bonus is a +1 on damage rolls (worse than Weapon Specialization, a feat) and this damage bonus either doesn’t get better or scales much more slowly than bravery.

Now, let’s look at some examples of where we can see these tips in action in real archetypes!

  • Like for Like: This one is easy. Almost every bard archetype that trades bardic knowledge trades it for a different skill bonus. Same goes for the fighter; virtually everything that trades bravery swaps it out for another super specific, defensive bonus.
  • General to Specific: In addition to my fighter example above, another great example of this rule can be found in oracle archetypes. Many oracle archetypes force the oracle to take specific revelations at specific levels, cutting down on the usual freedom and flexibility of the revelation system. That said, these revelations often break the normal rules of the oracle’s mystery, which makes the trade a fair one. See the aasimar’s purifier archetype from the Advanced Race Guide for an example of what I’m talking about.
  • Avoid Trading too Much: This defines virtually every Paizo archetype out there.
  • Broken Rules: Let’s talk quick about some archetypes that break these rules, for good or for bad. A handful archetypes break the “trade like for like rule;” a great example is the weapon master fighter, which trades armor training for weapon training at an earlier progression and replaces the weapon training progression with more offensive benefits. For the General to Specific rule, the freebooter ranger archetype trades favored enemy for an ability that grants a bonus to the ranger and his allies against one target. Now, this bonus is only half that of the favored enemy bonus, but it still takes an ability with a specific limitation and makes it more general. And for the “avoid trading too much” advice, the alternate classes break this rule (antipaladin, ninja, samurai) but they get around this by having full 20-level class tables and even a piece of iconic art in the case of the ninja and samurai.

The Ultimate Rule Breakers

That said, there’s one archetype that breaks all of the rules mentioned above simultaneously: the qinggong monk. For those of you that do not know, the qinggong monk is an Ultimate Magic archetype that allows you to trade virtually any of the monk’s class features for a “ki power” from a list of ki powers. This archetype spans two pages alone, can trade anything for anything, and often takes specific abilities and replaces them with general abilities, if you are so inclined.

Now, with that in mind, is the qinggong monk broken? No, because all of its powers are tied in to the monk’s existing resource: its ki pool. So while you’re trading a lot around, you’re not really getting anything that you can rely on all day, every day. In some situations you’re even trading passive benefits for on-use abilities. Because of the nature of ki points, this archetype isn’t all that broken.

On the other hand, another archetype that breaks all of the rules (except length) to glorious effect is the lore warden fighter archetype. This archetype trades the defensive armor training abilities for much more powerful defenses or for offensive benefits in some circumstances. It also replaces a very specific defensive bonus (bravery) for a very general defensive bonus (Combat Expertise) and at one level, it trades armor training for a massive, scaling combat maneuver bonus. This archetype is extremely powerful and breaks most of the game’s rules. Is it overpowered? Compared to other fighter archetypes, yes, but in the cosmic scheme of gaming? Not really.


As you can imagine, this article is only scratching the surface on archetype design, and that’s intentional. I can’t give you general advice that will help you design the perfect archetype for your needs: more than anything, freelancing is about freedom and experimentation. So keep these rules and tips in mind as you grab your pencil, keyboard, or tablet and get experimenting!

And that about wraps up my thoughts on Archetype Design for this installment of Freelancer Foci. What do you think? Was there anything I missed? Did you learn anything new? Have you designed any archetypes before? How did they go? Leave your questions and comments below and come back next week for more of my Gibbering Mouth!

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 lore warden, and the first archetype he designed was the empyreal friar.

Falling from Grace

Welcome to the Gibbering Mouth article for March 5th, 2014. Today’s article is a Wednesday Rave; the topic is the paladin code of conduct.

Discussions about alignment almost always revolve around one specific class: the paladin. Paladins are hardly the only class in the game with alignment requirements: barbarians, clerics, druids, inquisitors, monks, and the soon-to-be warpriest also have similar requirements placed upon them. Maybe its because most of these classes have a one-step leeway or something, but it seems like no one is complained about more than the paladin. Heck, you see more “falling paladin” threads and discussions than antipaladins, that’s for sure. Monks have an alignment requirement that is almost as strict as a paladin’s, too.

So why all the fuss about paladin alignment?

Falling as a Goal

For whatever reason, this idea that all GMs should be testing their paladin’s morality (translation: trying to get them to fall) is as old as the paladin class itself. Likewise, the player sentiment that all GMs are trying to make their paladins fall has existed for just as long. Last week we talked about trusting the GM, and this is certainly an example of a place where there is a noticeable gap in player-to-GM trust. For this reason, I feel obligated to say this to all my GMs out there. Ladies and gentlemen, I don’t lord over your tables. But please remember this #1 rule of being a decent GM: it is not your job to screw over your players. Your players are more than capable of screwing themselves over; they don’t need us working against them too!

A perfect example is the “Satan Spawn” scenario. This is a somewhat famous “paladin trap” where the GM places a demon-possessed child before the paladin with some sort of MacGuffin that will kill billions of people or something silly like that. The idea of the “trap” is that the paladin falls no matter what he does. If he ends the threat by attacking the child, he falls for attacking an innocent person who was under the control of something else. If he does nothing, billions of people die and its all his fault, so he falls. The fallacy in this thinking is the idea that this is an interesting moral choice. It is not. Saving the billions of people at the expense of one child is ASSUREDLY a good thing. It could be good for a good personal dilemma, but it is not something that the paladin should have any chance of falling for. The obviously “good” thing to do in this situation is to slay the kid, save the world, bring the kid’s body back to her family, apologize to them, grieve with them, and help the family find peace. Telling the paladin that he falls for doing what’s right is NOT a moralistic decision: it is a GM being a twat. End of discussion.

Falling for Story Purposes

Some GMs have this idea that a paladin falling from grace makes for a dark, gritty, and interesting story. Because of this, you’ll sometimes see GMs who go out of their way to try and create situations for their players to fall (see above).

Let’s set the record straight: yes. A paladin falling and subsequently atoning for his crimes and redeeming himself (or transforming into an engine of destruction and evil) can make for a very interesting story. But generally speaking, those stories are better told with NPCs, not with players. That is, unless the player WANTS to fall. In any case, falling is not fun or exciting for players who do not want it. Because of all of the negatives that are associated with falling, players feel like their character FAILED when he or she fell. The paladin fantasy for players is not about atonement and redemption: it is about being a knight in shinning armor. A hero. This is why the fallen paladin works better as an NPC for the players to observe: everyone recognizes the fallen hero and it makes for a good story to interact with.

Am I saying that players should never want to fall? Nope. If you want to fall, good. Tell your GM that its what you are interested in. But GMs, do not decide for your players that they ARE going to fall. Let them make that decision on your own.

Breaking the Code

Paladins get a bad rap for having the strictest code of conduct of any class in the game. For whatever reason, our generation feels as though it must punish any transgression that is in violation of a set of rules with the upmost prejudice. But the fact remains that people are mortal: they make mistakes. And a single misdeed should not cause you to fall unless it is BIG; a truly repulsive act of upmost evil and chaos. But making small mistakes here and there? That shouldn’t destroy you.

For an excellent way to determine alignment change, check out the scaling slider in Ultimate Campaign: not only is it an awesome tool if tracking alignment is your thing, but it also gives tips on how certain deeds might affect your alignment. But always remember, folks. Alignment is an agent of communication: players and GMs need to talk about alignment before radically changing it from someone’s perceived notion of misconduct.

And that about wraps up my thoughts on paladin codes of conduct for this installment of the Wednesday Rave. What do you think? Have you ever played a paladin who was unfairly punished for something you did? How did you handle the situation? GMs, have you ever ran games for paladins that you have decided fell from grace? Why did they fall, and how did you handle it? Leave your questions, comments, and stories below and come back next week for more thoughts from my Gibbering Mouth!

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 paladin, though he’s always wished for an Eastern “divine warrior” archetype that allows the paladin get proficiency with some eastern weapons.

Trust Fall

Welcome to the Gibbering Mouth article for March 5th, 2014. Today’s article is a Wednesday Rave; the topic is trusting your GM.

A few weeks back there was an internet meme that REALLY got on my nerves. I’m gonna try to put a link of it in this blog post if I can. Basically, it is a picture of Boromir (from Lord of the Rings) in his “One does not simply walk into Morodor,” pose. And in big, black and white text on the picture, the meme says:

One does not simply trust a GM. (Note: tried to find this picture again. Couldn’t. If anyone wants to link it to me, I’ll post it here.)

Ooooh, that one makes me angry every time I read it! Let me explain why:

Roleplaying is a Cooperative Sport

Let me state this again.

Roleplaying is a Cooperative Sport

I know I’ve said this throughout my articles on the book. Pathfinder is not designed to be a competition. Sure, you can make it a competition if you really want to, but you lose part of the game when you do so. When you add competitive elements to the game (because I assure you, competition is not an inherent part of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game), you often loose out on roleplaying aspects or character drama because you are so focused on what someone else is doing that you do not have the time to worry about yourself.

This can take several forms. For example, I’m playing in a Wrath of the Righteous game right now where my damage Is consistently beaten by our party slayer by about half. I’m playing a bellflower tiller with a focus on the Vital Strike feats. I’ll admit, sometimes I feel pretty lame that I can’t one-shot destroy enemies like our party slayer can. It sometimes feel demoralizing. But then I sit back and remind myself of all the things he can’t do. He’s horrible at activating spell trigger items. He didn’t take any ranks in social skills. He didn’t invest in the ability to disarm traps. Then I try to remember some things that I can do that he can’t: I can more easily sneak attack enemies (for now). I can outrun him by a LOT fairly effortlessly. The reason that you don’t want to get into what is essentially the character design version of a pissing contest is that there is an inevitable outcome: I feel my character is inferior so I want to design a new character that is better to prove that I’m as good at character building as the other guy is.

But the truth of the matter is that it doesn’t matter which of us deals more damage because in the long run, we share the same goals: beat the bad guys, get the treasure, become awesome legends of the Worldwound.

Cooperation with the GM

Just as something is lost when you focus all of your energy on competing with the players, something is lost when you focus all of your energy competing with the GM. First, its futile. You can’t compete with someone who, theoretically, is omnipotent in the context of the game. It is as laughable as Yakko from the Animaniacs yelling at a disembodied narrator voice because that’s essentially what the GM is to the campaign: a disembodied narrator voice.

Now, there are plenty of tongue-in-cheek stories where the characters go against the narrator’s will. An excellent example of this comes from South Park’s Woodland Critter Christmas. In this episode of South Park, the narrator tries to get Stan to go continue his story by constantly reminding him of what he needed to go. Stan just sits there and watches TV until finally giving in to his narrator’s voice, however.

Now, if Woodland Critter Christmas were a campaign, it would be safe to say that a GM who acts likes this narrator would probably be reviled for railroading or something similar. Let’s remind ourselves of the definition of railroading: the process of forcing the PCs to complete a certain task before continuing the adventure. In this case, is the narrator railroading Stan? The answer, frankly, is no. Stan is not participating in the story at all. He’s completing no tasks. He’s not doing anything, and if Stan is being railroaded to play the game, is he really playing at all?

The fact of the matter is that the GM’s job in a roleplaying game is to provide the players with a situation and to resolve that situation justly. There has to be some trust on both sides of the GM screen for this to work. The GM needs to trust that the players are going to actively participate in the story that he has established while the players need to trust that the GM is going to act as a fair arbiter of the events that follow. A good GM is not out to screw over her players, despite what the Internet culture is telling you. A good GM wants everyone to participate in a satisfying story, and the key word there is everyone. Sometimes the GM is going to do things that are not satisfying for you as an individual. Sometimes the GM might do something that is not satisfying for your entire group. GMs are only human, and I’ve seen plenty of GMs do things that made for a satisfying event for himself. But you have to trust that in the long run, whatever the GM is doing is for the betterment of the story, not for himself, not for you, and not for your peers. When we watch a movie or read a book, we don’t love every individual event that happens in the story. I, for one, hated the very first major death that happened in A Song of Ice and Fire. Absolutely hated it; my favorite character died! But do I hate the entire series for that one event? No, because sometimes bad things need to happen to make the story more satisfying overall.

So trust your GM that he or she is doing everything possible to make each story, but not each event, satisfying for everyone.

And that about wraps up my thoughts on Player/GM Trust for this installment of the Wednesday Rave. What do you think? How does the relationship of trust work between a GM and her players? If you’re a player, how does that relationship look at your table? If you’re a GM, how do you foster a sense of trust with your players? How does the trust fall work for all of you PFS players out there? Leave your answers, comments, and stories below and come back next week to listen to more from my Gibbering Mouth!

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 thief-acrobat. No, no its not. I’m not old enough to have ever played a thief-acrobat.