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TABLE OF CONTENTS
CHAPTER 1: Intro
CHAPTER 2: Challenging Us
CHAPTER 3: Phases of Challenge – It’s Mostly a Matter of Level
CHAPTER 4: My Experiences
CHAPTER 5: Analyzing the Arcane Warrior (“Gish”)
CHAPTER 6: Core Is Unbalanced
CHAPTER 7: Character Roles
CHAPTER 1: INTRO
What To Read
If you read nothing else, read the bolded purple text!
I highly recommend reading and meditating on this entire document. It explains the
capabilities of D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder so well.
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CHAPTER 2: CHALLENGING US
All creatures have various resources. Some have spells and some have levels, but
all creatures have these resources:
-Base Attack Bonus (BAB)
-Hit Points (HP)
To make a creature interesting, it needs more than these essential things.
Adding items or class levels doesn’t inherently make for more interesting games. Using
creature abilities in clever combinations and ways (such as a Will-o-Wisp
enhancing a Shambling Mound or having Earth Elementals dive bomb enemies
from a rocky ceiling) allows encounters to be more interesting and memorable,
and sometimes more challenging.
Eye color, weight, favorite meal, and name are optional. Such factors don’t affect the
game mechanically very much.
All creature resources can be noted by their frequency. In general, a resource
falls into one of these categories:
-Per Round: All creatures normally get 1 standard action, 1 move action, and 1 swift
action per round. Even abilities usable at-will are usually only usable once per round.
-Per X Rounds: Martial maneuvers (Tome of Battle) are can be recovered by spending
time in battle. Most maneuvers are a “Per X Rounds” or “Per Encounter” resource.
-Per Encounter: Martial maneuvers (Tome of Battle) are recovered at the start of an
Also, the usefulness of some spells- especially buffs and crowd control spells- are
handiest at the start of an encounter. Using them after the threat is mostly neutralized
would be a waste.
-Per X Encounters: Minute per level and longer spells usually fall into this category.
Casting shield so it lasts 10 minutes helps as much for the first encounter it’s used as
the last. Recasting it during a fight means nothing, save that it will extend the time.
-Per Day: Note that for short enough days and lifespans, “Per Day” resources act as
“Per Encounter” or “Per Lifetime” resources.
D&D spells are famous for their Vancian spell slot system, where each shot (spell prep)
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is used and removed.
Some magic items (Pearls of Power) and class features (a Barbarian’s Rage) are usable
so many times per day.
-Per X Days: These resources are rare mostly because tracking them is cumbersome.
A D&D 3.5 Paladin can remove disease a certain number of times per week.
-Per Level: These resources are rare in part because levels are meant to be abstract,
but also because people want to use abilities more frequently than once per level.
Every creature gets BAB, saves, skill points, feats, or/and HP every level. While having
higher numbers in these areas is generally preferred, they are not special and I shall not
touch on them further here.
A D&D 3.5 Artificer gets a Craft Reserve, or an amount of experience points usable to
make magic items without spending his own. This is set to a new value every Artificer
level and unspent points are lost.
Also, Action Points from Eberron Campaign Setting, d20 Modern, and Unearthed Arcana
are usable a certain number of times per level. Sometimes, Action Points carry over to
the next level.
-Per X Levels: Feats come at level 1, level 3, and so many levels thereafter. In D&D
3.5, general feats come at level 6 and every 3 levels thereafter. In Pathfinder, general
feats come at level 5 and every 2 levels thereafter.
-Per Lifetime: Feats and class levels are generally considered a “Per Lifetime” resource,
because they are generally unchangeable.
Rare abilities exist that are only usable a certain number of times in a character’s life.
Magic items with set numbers of charges and with no ability to recharge are the closest
thing in the core rules to a “Per Lifetime” resource.
Encounter Threat Levels
Trivial. Short of extreme circumstances, you know which side will win. Typically, not
every creature on one side will get more than 2 turns.
While many crowd control spells and abilities seemingly trivialize encounters, rarely do
they win encounters by themselves. Evard’s black tentacles is a rare crowd control spell
that can kill on its own. Most crowd controlling is for the next threat level, Contained.
If the fight is trivial because the party’s opposition is winning, it’s almost always a total
party kill (TPK). Regardless, someone will die or come very close.
Contained. The fight is mostly over. Mostly, mop-up remains. One side may fight
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desperately to escape, but they know or are almost certain the fight is losing or lost.
Usually crowd control spells like web and glitterdust put fights in this threat level since
they don’t affect all of the enemies. Chances are someone will escape from an area
crowd control spell. Even is this contained state, enemies can still hurt and even kill if
one side is unlucky or careless.
For example, if a pack of half-dragon giant slugs is entangled in a web spell, they can
still use their breath weapon despite having their movement hampered. Downing one as
quickly as possible is advised as next turn they may all break free.
Alternatively, the group’s casters could all be disabled (stunned, nauseated, grappled,
and so on) while the front-liners try fight to wave after wave of unrelenting enemies.
Uncertain. In the combat’s current state, the victor is yet to be determined. Usually,
these are the memorable fights if for nothing besides their difficulty. Smart tactics,
reinforcements, and luck play critical roles in determining a victor.
Sometimes, uncertain level fights are hallmarks of balance. Often, they happen on
accident, such as when one side boldly fights an overwhelming force and gains some
reasonable chance of success.
Not everything you fight will be a level-appropriate challenge. Not everything
you find should be fought.
Level-appropriate challenges go both ways. Sometimes, enemies are there just to
take up space. They contribute mostly to the body count, and to absorb enemy actions.
On the other end, the Big Scary Creature™ doesn’t seem so scary. Maybe he does.
Regardless, if the party is outmatched, fleeing is the wise and sane thing to do. Player
instincts may go, “Wuh?” when a well-prepared level 5 group encounters several
creatures meant for level 10 characters and is expected to flee.
The environment and a creature’s tactics are the X factor. I’ve won fights I
should have lost and lost fights I should have won because of smart play on one side.
Hit and run tactics against the group may seem unsporting, but in a matter of life and
death, “honor” is less important.
Most the time, however, it’s a game and we admit it’s a game. Reliably facing
things way above you makes for more lethal combat and hampers character
development, at least in terms of story. While undead characters can roleplay,
inanimate character corpses don’t. Often, if you win against overwhelming odds, it’s a
pleasant surprise and a matter of luck.
Facing things far too weak to be interesting is a waste of the group’s time. An
adventure meant for a level 1 party is probably of no interest soon thereafter.
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CHAPTER 3: PHASES OF CHALLENGE –
IT’S MOSTLY A MATTER OF LEVEL
Phases - Intro
In D&D 3.X and Pathfinder, there are a few distinct phases, based on the group's level
and assumed access to resources, especially magic. These phases are quite
intentionally linked to a full caster’s highest spell level.
I don’t guarantee your game will work exactly like this. Perhaps rocket tag will be
common from level 1, or AC will remain important until level 15. These, however, are
generalities collected from many accounts and analysis of D&D’s mechanics.
Phase I: Gritty Medieval Fantasy
Levels 1-6 (Spell Levels 1-3)
-D&D characters have similar limits to ‘real life’ counterparts. A level 6 character
is almost always considered remarkable, even close to superhuman. Most people in
reality are level 1 or 2.
-Creatures are squishy, but sometimes a high AC makes up for it. A crit can take
out most of a creature’s HP and maybe slay him outright. Even that raging dwarf
Barbarian with “lots” of HP can still drop from a Wizard’s crossbow bolt or two.
-HP and damage work like this:
Level 1 – HP uses the same formula as weapon damage: A creature has 1dX+CON
HP, where CON is usually a secondary stat. Damage is typically 1dX+OW!, where OW!
is usually a primary stat.
Levels 2 through 4 – HP uses the same formula as crit damage or a full attack:
Now, creature HP typically isn’t maxed per HD anymore. Also, the formula assumes no
Power Attack or alternative damage sources, like a high STR and DEX to damage via
-Initiative is important but rarely life-or-death. Going first is good and going last
is usually awful. Your group usually need not rely on going first to live.
-Spellcaster enemies and foes with spell-like abilities are assumed rare. Why
would a level 1 Wizard worth his spells and genius Intelligence risk his skin when he
knows he’s squishy? Most likely, he’d manipulate people in the background- the dumb
melee brutes with low Will saves- and have them take the fall.
As for creatures with innate spell-like abilities, they’re rare. You may fight a dretch or
an imp or a pixie, but few things shout, “KILL HIM NOW OR WE’RE ALL TOMATO PASTE!”
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-Failing a save usually means you’re greatly hurt (Reflex) or out of the fight
(Fortitude or Will), but rarely are there permanent or long-term penalties.
Failing a Reflex save may be deadly at low levels, but is mostly an inconvenience.
Failing a Fortitude save usually means you’re poisoned or diseased. Failing a Will save
usually means you’re someone’s pet for a fight or a few hours.
-Death is a serious threat. A dead ally is probably out of the game. Even if raise
dead is available, at 5000G per use. In 3.5, there’s also a lost level. In Pathfinder,
there’s an extra 1000G cost for restoration. Either may break the deal.
-Melee gets to feel powerful. Martial adepts make casters nervous. A round or
two from a Fighter or melee brute can bring down many foes. Martial adepts have
enough staying power to likely be the most powerful classes during levels 1-4.
-Casters need to greatly ration spells. Casters need to be creative and use their
spells in the most pressing of circumstances. Level 0 spells still aren’t worth much, but
ghost sound, detect magic, prestidigitation, create water, and cure minor wounds are
the stars here.
-A single cantrip or level 1 spell can radically alter the setting and environment,
if only subtly. Charm person or silent image or ghost sound or prestidigitation on an
unsuspecting king or merchant or noble or guardsman or guild leader or other authority
figure may make your life a lot easier.
Proper use of magic can break the setting from level 1.
-There are plenty of spells to mess with others’ minds. In core, we have these:
-charm person (Bard1, Wiz1)
-disguise self (Bard1, Wiz1)
-major image (Bard3, Wiz3)
-minor image (Bard2, Wiz2)
-silent image (Bard1, Wiz1)
-suggestion (Bard2, Wiz3)
-Casters get spells that directly alter their environment. It may not seem like
much, but there is great power in weakening a structural support with stone shape or
forcing grass to grow via plant growth for a future entangle.
In core, we have these:
-create water (Cle0, Druid0, Pal1)
-soften earth and stone (Druid2)
-stone shape (Cle3, Druid3, Wiz4)
-plant growth (Druid3, Ranger3)
-Money is tight and so many items look appealing. The game expect you to get
lots of money quickly. Stuff is expensive, and you may have 3 or 4 minor magical items
by the time you leave this phase.
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-If the group is self-sufficient, it is only in minor aspects. The party Cleric may be
able to treat disease and poison, but only if he prepares for it.
-Magical recon is handy, but mostly forgettable. Speak with dead may obviate a
murder mystery, and some areas like castles and vaults have high security. Where you
go and what you do is usually quite obvious.
-Transportation is mostly overland and within a small region. There’s rarely a
need to go to the far ends of the earth from the starting area. Most likely, the action
takes place in a country or three.
-Characters usually get around in traditional medieval style. Characters walk
most places, and may ride mounts or ships to reach their destination. Rarely are flying
or aquatic mounts used. Teleportation and plane changing rarely happen.
Phase II: Heroic Medieval Fantasy
Levels 7-12 (Spell Levels 4-6)
-D&D characters have transcended limits of their ‘real life’ counterparts. While
usually foolish, a Fighter may jump off a 12 story building just to prove he can survive.
After all, it’s only 12d6 damage.
-HP and damage work like this:
Level 7 – Optimized melee brutes can kill or KO you in one hit: A Dragonborn or
Raptoran wielding a +1 Valorous Lance and who triggers Battle Jump does quadruple
(x4!) damage! A “paltry” 20-30 damage per hit, when multiplied, can end bosses in one
hit. Also, Cleave.
Level 10 – Melee brutes can kill or KO you if their full attack fully hits you: I’ve
seen Ye Old Raging Power Attacking Barbarian one-shot level appropriate foes. It
required specific abilities such as these- Power Attack, greater magic weapon, Shock
Trooper (Complete Warrior), Battle Jump (Unapproachable East), and Leap Attack
(Complete Adventurer)- but these seem obvious for such a character. Also, Cleave.
-Spellcaster enemies and foes with spell-like abilities are becoming more
common. Maybe that level 1 Wizard has finally manipulated all the lackeys he could
and has reached level 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, or higher in the process. Now, he may be
impatient or bored or annoyed that you continue to interfere. Expect him to intervene
with an army at his back, and his front, and his sides. Maybe above and below him too
for good measure.
As for creatures with innate spell-like abilities, they’re getting more common. Enemies
with spell-like abilities can fool armies with illusions or make a writhing mass of Evard’s
black tentacles or hamper foes with web. Outsiders with spell-like abilities can usually
teleport themselves at-will and without error. Dragons come onto the scene as credible
threats and possible antagonists. You know what that means, right? Dragon boss fight
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-Some creatures are squishy, but AC overall loses much of its value. Survival
starts depending on a high HP, high touch AC, high saves, and a reliable miss chance
against you. (Blur offers 20% and displacement offers 50%. No, they don’t stack.)
Creatures with meager CON scores (less than 16 after items) are usually asking to die if
try to melee. They may die regardless from area effects.
-Resistances and immunities are becoming fairly common. You come to expect
that creatures will resist something, even if it’s a half-hearted Fire Resist 5 against your
677 points of fire damage.
Spell resistance comes on the scene, but is still fairly rare. Casters worth their spells
don’t rely on beating SR to do their thing.
-Rocket tag will probably enter the scene. Initiative suddenly escalates in
importance. There’s a great possibility that if you go first, you can totally incapacitate
the enemy forces, or at least gimp them greatly. You may even be able to kill an
important unit before he can do the same to you.
Likewise, if your enemies go first, there’s a great chance they’ll shut down your side.
Expect to die or be KOed. A lot.
-Failing a Reflex save usually isn’t deadly, but failing a Fortitude or Will save
has permanent or long-term penalties. Failing a Fortitude save usually means death
or permanent incapacitation. Failing a Will save usually means you’re slowed or you’re
someone’s pet for a good, long time, even for a day or longer!
-Death is less of a threat. With level 5 spells, a Cleric can raise dead. This material
expense (5000G per use) makes it inconvenient, but more easily absorbed at higher
levels. Losing a level in 3.5 is harsh, but manageable. Losing 1000G in Pathfinder for
restoration to remove the negative level makes death more expensive cash-wise but
more fun. At least you get to keep your abilities!
-Melee brutes and casters are on more even footing. Melee brutes do lots of
damage, but casters disable foes and bolster allies. Melees can often do enough
damage to one-shot or one-round minions. Still, beware the tentacles!
-Casters have more resources. Casters still need to ration their best spells, but can
be a bit looser on the level 1 and 2 slots. A Conjurer7 has 15 general slots per day and
4 specialty slots, all of level 1 or higher. This is a lot when you realize that a well-placed
spell of any level can win a fight, and most fights can be won with 2 spells, tops.
Some spells can produce permanent effects, or effects lasting a day or longer. Planar
binding lets a Wizard bring forth a real creature with all its normal abilities if the GM lets
him. That even means chain binding Efreeti (Genies) for wish farms if the GM says so.
-There are more spells to mess with others’ minds. In core, we have these:
-charm monster (Bard3, Wiz4)
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-confusion (Bard3, Wiz4)
-control winds (Druid5)
-dominate person (Bard4, Wiz5)
-mass suggestion (Bard5, Wiz6)
-persistent image (Bard5, Wiz5)
-programmed image (Bard6, Wiz6)
-Casters get more spells to directly alter environments. In core, we have these:
-major creation (Wiz5) – especially via poison
-minor creation (Wiz4) – especially via poison
-move earth (Druid6)
-stone shape (Cle3, Druid3, Wiz4)
-wall of iron (Wiz6)
-wall of stone (Cle5, Druid6, Wiz5)
-Characters can finally buy items on their wish lists! Money is more available,
meaning the majority of nonmagical items are readily accessible. Characters are
expected to have minor and medium stat-boosters, like Cloaks of Resistance, Headbands
of INT, and Periapts of CON. Ideally by the end of this phase, characters have at least a
+4 item of their main stat, +2 items of their secondary stats, and +5 resistance bonus
-The party usually becomes self-sufficient. Clerics can afford to keep a spare
remove disease handy as a scroll or spell slot. Status effects are usually a rest period
away from being removed, and great distances are crossable via teleport and plane
-Magical recon starts becoming important, though its importance for the group
depends on how much other factions in the world use it. Scrying, contact other
plane, and arcane eye are examples in the core rules of learning things most mortals
If you need to keep tabs on your enemies through Divinations, it’s probably because
they’re doing or about to do the same to you. Be prepared for teleport backlash.
-Characters start moving about in fantastic ways. Transportation is by land, by
sea, by air, and by interdimensional travel, such as teleport and plane shift. Adventures
tend to be world-spanning or plane-spanning by this point. Teleport is often the handier
spell here since it can instantly transport 4 Medium or smaller creatures 900 or more
miles as a standard action. Load excess party members into a Portable Hole or Bag of
Holding and head to your destination in style!
Characters still may walk and ride mounts and ships, but even inaccurate teleports will
get people where they want to go faster than doing things the ‘normal’ way.
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-Planar travel may become important in this phase. A Cleric can plane shift, but
this acts as an inaccurate teleport unless the campaign demands interplanar travel.
-Once at an adventure site, teleport and its kin are of uncertain value. Yes, you
can probably dimension door through a wall into unknown territory to bypass a deadly
trap or an annoying riddle. Unless you’re certain doing this is wise, you’re asking for a
lot of trouble.
Send a summonling or hireling through the danger zone instead and if he survives, you
have recon! At least be nice and turn him invisible first.
Phase III: Wuxia/Superheroes
Levels 13-16 (Spell Levels 7 & 8)
-D&D characters have entered the Matrix. Reality, in large part, has become the
group’s plaything. They probably aren’t gods yet, but D&D characters relate more to
supernatural beings than mere mortals.
-HP damage is becoming highly inefficient at killing things. For example, what do
you do against a Quickened targeted greater dispel magic followed by a Maximized Split
Twinned enervation that, if everything hits (4 rays), will give you 16 negative levels?
What if this caster is affected by surge of fortune, guaranteeing him a natural 20 on one
of these rolls for a guaranteed critical threat? Your answer had better be at least one of
these if you want to live:
-Contingency or a contingent item
-Counterspelling, assuming it can be countered
-Death ward, being undead or not hurt by negative energy
-Exceptional Deflection and Infinite Deflection, both Epic feats
-Readied action to disrupt the caster/block line of effect
-Spell turning. Lots and lots of spell turning (16 levels’ worth).
-Saves, HP, and miss chance may help. Immunities are king! Depending on your
point of view, everyone is squishy or no one is. Either you’re immune or not, and if not,
expect to go splat!
Normal AC has lost almost all its value, though touch AC may still matter. High AC
usually demands losing offensive capabilities, and eventually your luck will run out and
the Bad Stuff you hoped to avoid by layering yourself with defenses will happen.
Adventurers have less reason to adventure at this level. They could make allies among
the planes who will grant them sanctuary (and wishes) and they could have minions do
their dirty work instead!
-Resistances and immunities are common. If something you fight has no
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resistances or immunities, you expect it to have super high saves, loads of HP, and the
ability to incapacitate your group in one round.
Spell resistance is on the scene in varying frequencies. Casters worth their spells still
don’t rely on beating SR to do their thing.
-Prepare for rocket tag! Now, survival is mostly a matter of who goes first and
unleashes their super ability or ultra combo. If you somehow don’t go first and survive,
show your assailants the errors of their ways.
-If there is a save, failing it usually means disaster. If there is no save, prepare
to die. The effects have only gotten deadlier, folks! Instead of a spell like flesh to
stone that ‘kills’ one foe on a failed save, we have mass versions of those spells that
harried us at lower levels, like Sandstorm’s mass flesh to salt!
Against an optimized caster, failing (or even passing) a Reflex save may mean instant
death. I hope you packed a revive!
The threat of a heavily metamagicked no save spell is real! See the above example
about enervation. This could instead be Kelgore’s grave mist (Player’s Handbook II
116), an orb of force (Spell Compendium 151) or a heavily augmented summonling or
-Death and permanent shut down are of varied lethality. Killing someone is easy.
Undoing the killing with raise dead or resurrection is still easy. However, at this level,
killing enemies is not necessarily wise, as foes tend to be masterminds and higher-ups
of things you faced at lower levels.
Instead, you are sometimes expected to shut down foes without killing them so their
allies can’t easily revive them. Trap the soul will take someone out in an expensive, yet
subtle fashion. Flesh to stone remains one way to incapacitate without killing.
Even after all your efforts, you may have only taken down a minion or a simulacrum.
-Casters are expected to overshadow non-casters. While there’s always been a rift
between the occupations of “altering reality” and “hitting things,” now the game must
favor one of them. If magic works as expected- meaning no antimagic fields or wild
magic zones- then he who has the best use of magic wins. If magic becomes unreliable,
there becomes a great need for characters to also work well when magic doesn’t.
This is the GM’s switch to say, “It’s your turn to shine!”
Non-casters can still contribute, but require more tricks than “hit it good.” A martial
adept emphasizing the White Raven discipline can bolster his allies and make them feel
a lot better. The Mountain Hammer maneuver line can break away hard surfaces slowly,
reliably and without magic.
-Casters have more spells than they’re expected to cast in a day. This is often
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true before, but Wizard players may forget about their level 1-3 spells.
A level 15 Wizard worth his spells is effectively a demigod, able to turn X into Y, go
where he pleases on this plane and that, blow stuff up because it doesn't belong there,
give life to simulacrums of his favorite dragons/outsiders, call his favorite deity via
contact other plane and get scooped on what spells to prepare for that time period,
clone himself a backup self, and enslave cities with charm/dominate all in the same day.
Really, a Wizard can access every spell if only indirectly. A Solar in 3.5 casts spells as a
Cleric20. An Efreeti can emulate L6 Druid spells, and there's probably some extraplanar
Archivist, Psion, Erudite, Artificer, or <class name> who'd be willing to help you for a
large enough bribe or a strong enough charm/dominate monster. Gate one in- if only by
a magic item- and have a ball, or better yet, a prismatic sphere!
-Money is almost no object. Time still matters. Spells can create wealth, directly
or indirectly. True creation can make a bunch of valuable material. Plane shift can lead
my golems on a mining expedition on the Elemental Plane of Earth. Dominate person
can make my favorite merchants mine.
One thing characters normally can’t do yet is manipulate time. They may be able to
hang out on a plane where time goes very quickly compared to their home plane and
use this to research spells and make items seemingly instantly.
-Many casters are self-sufficient. Almost all non-casters aren’t. As in phase II,
but more so. Wizards can planar bind outsiders to cast Cleric and Druid spells to
remove ailments, make wealth, and so on.
Non-casters still rely on casters for pretty toys and the ability to do more than hit stuff.
Everyone, non-casters especially, should expect to have a continual fly and freedom of
movement handy just so they won’t get snatched by a giant flying creature, like, oh, a
dragon. While they’re at it, everyone also need continual mind blank and death ward
just so they won’t be auto-killed by Some Guy with Level-Appropriate Abilities™.
-Magical recon encourages an arms race. It isn’t enough to casually use greater
scrying and contact other plane to spy on one’s associates, ally or enemy. Now, you’re
expected to keep tabs on everyone. Some would say, “You never know X.” With
enough Divinations, you do.
-Characters need to move about in fantastic ways. By now, there are plenty of
counters to teleport. An antimagic field or a dimensional lock keeps most interplanar
pests out, but encourages people to head in and do things the old fashioned way.
Teleport and plane shift are expected for overland travel. You’re expected to fly (or fly)
on almost all occasions, preferably without magic.
Non-fliers are one reverse gravity away from a no-save, no-SR uselessness. Maybe an
enemy caster used a Quickened reverse gravity with a gate that leads to a nasty plane.
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-Planar travel is probably important in this phase. Clerics and Wizards can plane
shift. I’d probably want powerful allies among the planes, since the mortal planes tend
to have a bunch of ordinary, weak inhabitants with the occasional extraplanar invader.
Besides, if I’ve been borrowing Elementals and Outsiders via planar binding, I can
hopefully make deals with their home plane masters.
-The multiverse is your adventure site. You don’t know which arrogant Wizard child
will want to thwart your deal with some genies to make the Elemental Plane of Snakes.
(Actually, if you’re smart, you do. See the emphasis on Divinations, above.) Maybe you
need to be prepared for a salamander uprising, or a tea party with Asmodeus.
Regardless, there’s less distinction between ‘on duty’ and ‘off duty.’ You may be able to
hide on another plane to rest for an hour or few to replenish spells, make items, and say
“Hi” to all your minions. After that, it’s off to the Abyss!
Phase IV: Ascension to Effective Godhood
Levels 17-20 (Spell Level 9)
-D&D characters are effectively gods. Who else can do hundreds of damage in one
round by tapping someone with a fork?
-Be there and win rocket tag or don’t show up. Time stop. With it, casters tell the
universe, “I’ll let you go when I’m good and ready.”
Even without time stop, casters have so many options that adventuring is what their
simulacrum army does while they remain immortal in an astral projection.
In combat, foresight means you’re never surprised or flat-footed. Shapechange turns
you into whatever you want, and in 3.5 grants you supernatural abilities.
Alternatively, a Wizard can cast genesis and isolate himself on his own pocket plane
from which his construct army mines platinum, obdurium, and other dense pockets of
precious, naturally-forming materials.
Even without genesis, a character of this caliber is generally enough of a threat so
people don’t face him head-on.
-Resistances and immunities are expected. Immunities are still king! Being
(not) immune is pretty much the same as in phase III.
Immunity to a type of damage (fire, slashing…) is minor compared to immunity to mind-
affecting effects or to your DM’s favorite spell.
Getting immunity to physical damage is one of the hardest tricks in the book. Even so,
there exists the Psion/Wilder9 power timeless body, which is a fancy way of saying,
“Deet dee dee dee dee dee dee dee.”
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Non-casters have a miniscule advantage here, if they can ever find the real enemy,
reach him with their weapon, and not ‘die’ in the process, since getting immunity to
physical damage is one of the hardest things to do. Regardless, see the Psion/Wilder9
power timeless body.
-Get magic, now! If you don’t have magic, you’re totally dependent on others who
might find you useless due to your lack of self-sufficiency. Even if magic is unreliable,
having it is better than lacking it.
-If there is a save, failing it means disaster. If there is no save, prepare to die.
The main difference from phase III is there are more options, many of which are area
effects or effects that selectively target their prey.
The threat of a heavily metamagicked no save spell is still around, and with higher level
spell slots, becomes more practical!
-Death and permanent shut down are of varied lethality. Not much difference
here from phase III, folks!
-Unreliable magic is the great equalizer on both sides of the table. Antimagic
field is possibly your GM’s favorite counter, but now you have disjunction to undo those
pesky AMFs. You may even have additional resources to remove them.
See the guide Anti-Antimagic: How to Cast in an Area Where Magic Won’t Normally
-One level 9 spell can radically alter the world. Imagine a low-magic world where a
caster sneakily infiltrates and uses gate to bring in a Solar, a real, live, genuine being of
angelic authority. There went a lot of religious ambiguity.
Alternatively, think of what happens if mortals could live forever with astral projection.
What about gathering world leaders in a room and using dominate person/dominate
monster to subtly turn them under your control?
Some of these things are possible at lower levels, but since you’re so powerful, why not
-Money is almost no object. Time may still matter. Money-wise, the phase III
Time stop is your first expected feeling of manipulating time. Haste made things go
faster from level 5, but I never felt like I ordered the universe to accelerate my party
Genesis, the Wizard spell, lets you make planes. Finally, you can determine how quickly
you want time to pass on your home base compared to the rest of the multiverse. Mind
you, this is an expensive way to do things, but at this level, you’ve earned it.
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-Many casters are living it up in enough magic to take down a nation or few.
Non-casters hope to leech this magic and wear it as items. Y’know those effects
that negate certain things, like how freedom of movement makes you grapple-proof,
true seeing negates most illusions, and 3.5 mind blank makes you immune to mind-
Y’know how these are normally expensive to put on items but casters can dedicate a slot
or few to make these things run continuously?
Y’see where I’m going?
-Magical recon isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. You may know Asmodeus has X
minions of type Y in his lair at all times, but are you sure it’s his real lair? Even if it is,
how can you swoop in there, survive his defenses, win rocket tag, and escape alive?
Doing this via simulacrum or astral projection helps, but expect retaliation even if you
For lower life forms, keeping tabs is usually easy. For everything else, you must be
-Characters still need fantastic mobility if they wish to remain mobile. Because
of genesis and great numbers of defenses, you may not even need to leave your lair. If
you do, ensure you’re fully buffed and fully informed.
Otherwise, things are as in phase III.
-Planar travel is essential in this phase. How else will you reliably reach your
extraplanar fortress? Besides, when partaking in planar politics, you look less credible if
you hitch a ride with some Outsider or other caster.
-The multiverse and maybe even time is your adventure site. Mostly, this is as in
phase III, but with the potential for time travel. If players must be careful not to act in
a way that undoes their progress, you’ve found a challenge. Whether this is worth
playing is another matter.
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CHAPTER 4: MY EXPERIENCES
I DMed a 3.5 campaign set in Xeen that spanned levels 1 to 21. This was the party
Binzero: Human Cleric5/Combat Medic1/Radiant Servant of Pelor10/Combat
Binzero was Kintarii’s cohort and a dedicated healer, buffer, and support character.
Since people kept getting hurt, he was in continual demand. Most often, however, he
would stand in a corner and avoid seeming threatening and Cleric-like.
Boddyknock: Strongheart Halfling Transmuter4/Master
(I know it’s only 18 levels. He was my character and there were plot reasons for his
Boddyknock specialized in save or ‘die’ spells – flesh to stone, maze, imprisonment, etc.
Because of this, I learned to be more party-friendly with spells to give the other players
a chance to act.
Buffing was a secondary role for Boddyknock.
Daiden: Winged Wood Elf Rogue1/Swordsage20
Daiden snuck so well that no one else could see him. Sometimes, he couldn’t even see
Daiden specialized in stealth, traps & locks, and Desert Wind maneuvers. If fire is cool,
more fire is more cool, right?
Overall, Daiden was a spectacular martial Rogue. He leaned heavily on the martial side
at the end, and his nonmagical prowess let him remain competent, sometimes even
spectacular, in areas that magic was not reliable.
Side note: Having seen Swordsages, Warblades, and Crusaders in action, all are viable
and powerful, but still at the whims of casters. Warblades and Crusaders are probably
stronger than Swordsages because Swordsages need a full-round action to recover one
maneuver. The feat Adaptive Style lets them refresh all their maneuvers as a full-round
In contrast, Warblades can full-attack to recover maneuvers and Crusaders get their
maneuvers randomly without requiring an action.
Kintarii: Human Paladin8/Sorcerer1/Gold Dragon Disciple10/Shining Blade of
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(I know that’s 24 levels. He drew well from the Deck of Many Things.)
Kintarii considered himself the group’s tank and backup healer. He specced himself to
be potent without items, and he saved the group in an antimagic field at least once.
Kintarii loved dragons so much he even had a pseudodragon familiar and a silver dragon
Nahsilik: Human Paragon1/Barbarian1/Necromancer1/Human
Nahsilik was the group’s arcane warrior (“gish”) and a bit of everything. When he joined
the game, there was no healer. I had recently made a Positivist specialization for
Necromancers to let Wizards cast cure and heal spells.
Nahsilik emphasized the melee aspect of a gish and rarely felt like a caster. While he
could have been far more powerful if he emphasized the caster aspect, he was plenty
Sarakuse: Human Sorcerer5/Mage of the Arcane
Sarkuse specialized in summoning and the wall of force spell. He was mostly ineffective
since the 3.5 options to greatly boost summoning weren’t available during this
campaign. At the time, these options weren’t yet released or I didn’t know of them.
(Malconvoker was in Complete Scoundrel. Paragnostic Apostle was in Complete
Strax: Human Sorcerer6/Boomer10/Archmage5
(The Boomer PrC is homebrew.)
Strax specialized in counterspelling and direct damage. He did plenty of both, though
his player didn’t realize the wealth of options besides these.
Strax was still effective when things died to HP damage, though he sometimes resorted
to limited wish to make the desired effect.
Adventures and Experience
-Until level 5, I awarded XP by the CR system. Once the group hit level 5, they
gained levels and experience by adventure instead of by kill. This encouraged smart
and efficient play instead of acting like fools for more experience.
Under this mission-based experience system, I could use creatures and
challenges of any CR and not worry about experience. I also didn’t have any
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item crafters, but I’ve since learned not to charge XP for making items in most
-I expected characters to gain a level every 3-4 weeks. Using D&D 3.5’s
experience system, this was closer to 3 weeks per level on average, but players liked it,
and we adapted to the levels.
-I relied on large numbers of short missions. Most my missions were meant to
finish in one night. More epic missions would take maybe a month to complete.
-Fight-wise, I rarely plucked things straight out of a book. I made stat sheets for
pertinent foes- usually humanoidals with class levels- and optimized everything. My
desire to be true to the rules led me to assign stat points, skill points, feats, and abilities
based on hit dice, as a real character would have. For most foes starting at level 10, I
gave them a base 18 in every stat. It barely mattered, but it was fun and easy.
Casters were common, and I usually stayed a spell level ahead of the party. I knew the
power of level 9 spells, and only used them once the group had them. This pace made
sense because Sheltem/Alamar was training the group to become his champions without
it seeming like he was so directly involved.
-I focused on making interesting fights and events and let the group handle
them. Players are more competent than you may realize. By making something that I
thought was awesome and including a variety of successful paths, the group would feel
My marker: If I thought I would love playing this, it would usually translate
into players thinking the same.
There are limits. Putting characters in a seemingly hopeless situation and expecting
them to do things to snatch victory from defeat is rarely going to happen.
-Part of the thrill of adventuring is introducing something awesome. Usually,
the rules had something in them to describe this. Failing that, I made my own.
For example, one of the characters wanted to join the Arcanorium in Sandcaster.
Because the player didn’t understand how best to use her spells, I made a separate
exam per school.
The Evocation Exam was perhaps most memorable as an action minigame. This exam
played a lot more like Diablo than D&D, but everything had a cost. Every spell cast,
item purchased, and round taken subtracted from the eventual score. Killing foes and
accepting penalties gained points.
Also, the final area- Darkstone Tower- had a variety of activities. Among the highlights
were a 3D crossword puzzle, a meeting with an old mentor who betrayed the party to
try to save them, an aerial battle in sky golems against an invading alien fleet, and the
final battle in a perpetual time stop. (Everyone could act because they had the epic feat
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Spell Stowaway: time stop.)
-NPCs accounted for many of the non-‘dungeon crawling’ roles. The group aided
a powerful Wizard early on and gained his trust. He provided the magical recon and
direction for the group.
Later, the group was initiated into a larger organization that provided an airship that
served as a base. This ship, the Light of Darkness, had teleport stations, merchants,
and important NPCs the group had helped. The players loved that they were part of
In doing this, there was less incentive for the group to bind outsiders, use complicated
algorithms to get the information they needed from Divinations, and try to conquer
nations. I never forbid them from using planar binding or such style-altering spells, but
the group wasn’t that interested in using them either.
Challenging Nahsilik the Arcane Warrior (“Gish”)
Nahsilik was considered one of the strongest characters in the group because he had the
stamina to keep going with usually only a small number of buffs.
Without his magic, he was nearly useless.
I used many opponents against him. One especially memorable fight against the party
was two drow gishes who had a slightly more optimized build than Nahsilik and who
were tactfully played.
Nahsilik went KO and nearly died.
In general, challenging Nahsilik (and by extension, an optimized gish) is a matter of
challenging the party. Every character has means to be shut down, and usually seeing
an ally fall will expose the daring nature of other PCs.
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CHAPTER 5: ANALYZING THE ARCANE
The Advantages of Gishes
-Greater stability when not relying on magic. A Wizard without his spells is just a
fancy Commoner. A Fighter/Wizard/Eldritch Knight is more than dead weight when he’s
out of spells or in an antimagic field.
-You can play a self-sufficient warrior. Most warriors depend on the party casters
to grant them mobility and higher stats. You can do this on yourself!
-You’re sometimes less squishy. While your HP probably took a nosedive, you have
higher saves from multiclassing and probably a higher AC and even a miss chance
-Touch spells are not suicide. Clerics love harm for its high damage. Clerics will
probably survive getting into melee to deliver it.
Arcane gishes get shocking grasp, plane shift, and many others.
The Disadvantages of Gishes
-Usually, they’ve lost the magical arms race the instant they multiclass. In 3.5
and Pathfinder, there is no way to forgive a lost caster level. For example, Eldritch
Knight1 is always a speed bump. Usually, you’re a spell level (that’s 2 class levels)
behind a full caster because you took a base class that doesn’t advance spellcasting,
such as Fighter, Barbarian, or Crusader.
Clerics, Druids, and single-class gishes fare better because their class is designed for
this role. Multiclassing can still help greatly, however.
-Lower initial accuracy and damage than a full warrior. In core, a level 1 orc half-
orc Barbarian with 24 STR (including +4 from raging) can double-hand a greatsword and
do an average of 14 damage per hit with a minimum of 9! That drops most things you
should expect to encounter. Power Attack only ups this.
In contrast, a gish may be doing this sort of damage at level 5 when he’s fully buffed.
His accuracy and damage are much lower from having less STR and BAB. He has less
ability to Power Attack. Buffs can make up for this, but they’re usually as viable for a
full warrior as for a gish.
-Late blooming. Your gish usually only feels like a gish after your first gish PrC.
Before then, you’re biding your time until you can spread out, and you should expect to
have dead feats and skill points.
-Feat crunch. You’re trying to fill at least two roles simultaneously. Most feats apply
to either your martial or your caster side. Taking Power Attack this level means
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Persistent Spell (Complete Arcane) or a prerequisite for a PrC that you want will have to
Also, you WILL take Practiced Spellcaster and Improved Practiced Spellcaster
(homebrew) if allowed. Caster levels are that important.
-Level crunch. Full casters can get PrCs with minimal BAB and do just fine. Your
levels need to advance casting and provide enough BAB and HP to justify your duality.
Certain buffs (especially 3.5’s polymorph) make up for this.
Heavy multiclassing means meeting perhaps many sets of prerequisites. Feats will be
lost in the making of your gish.
-Item crunch. Gishes need items that boost their physical stats and their casting stat.
Other items not normally viable for a full caster or full warrior suddenly become viable,
like a Pearl of Power.
-Stat crunch. Warrior-heavy gishes have only as much in their casting stat as they
need to get their spells and put the rest into physical stats. Caster-heavy gishes do the
-Spell crunch. Gishes tend to focus their spells on buffing themselves so they can do
the things a normal warrior could do, with some additional tricks. This means less room
for crowd controlling, social interaction, and other non-combat spells.
If the gish is a Wizard, there’s a specialization crunch. Most gishes are Transmuters for
the extra buffs. Most crowd controller Wizards are Conjurers.
-Skill crunch. Caster skills and martial skills greatly differ, meaning your skill points
are sunk into prerequisites. Gish PrCs may not have the class skills you want.
-Heavy magic reliance. Normal warriors aren’t so feeble in an antimagic field or if
their buffs are dispelled.
Also, needing to spend a round to throw up an important buff is one round not stopping
There are ways to lessen the pain, such as contingency, spell trigger, or the feat Linked
Power (Complete Psionic). Still, if you buff mid-fight, that’s one less action directly
contributing to ending the fight.
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CHAPTER 6: CORE IS UNBALANCED
Pathfinder Core and the D&D 3.5 Player’s Handbook have options for various styles and
power levels. Social games, puzzle games, and non-combat games are possible and
perhaps interesting within the rules, but the heart of the system is about going to exotic
places, killing things, and taking their stuff. Why? Because we can! It’s fun, too!
Even within the core rules, there are disparities in terms of power. Not all classes are
equally viable in a situation or even a campaign. Not even close. This similarly applies
to feats, skills, items, and spells, although items are too big a subject to fully elaborate
Being unbalanced isn’t necessarily bad; it allows for various campaigns of differing
power levels. As a GM, pick the options you want in your game and talk to your players
about questionable tactics and material.
But is it Broken?
It probably isn’t broken. ‘Broken’ in this context means the GM either can’t run
the game or world “as intended,” and there is no reasonable way to fix the
situation short of radically altering or banning the ability.
Infinite and nearly-infinite loops fall into this. Open-ended abilities like planar binding
and illusions are versatile and powerful, but rarely broken.
Reread the ability and consider what it does. How potent is it? What aspects of the
game or world does it affect? What setup does it require, and once set up, how many
times can this setup be used? How frequently can it be a credible threat? Are players
expected to have it, and if so, how soon?
For example, planar binding requires magic circle and dimensional anchor to prevent
pesky creatures from escaping. Having a specific room in your Bag of Holding or a rope
trick where you remotely interact with the called being through elaborate series of
illusions and traps isn’t something you should expect to do every day. Even if you do,
how many resources do you have to adventure or otherwise ward yourself?
Balancing fights is more fun by saying, “You need to use your best abilities,”
instead of saying, “No, you can’t do your trick.” When you compare opposition to
the party, consider what the party can do! It’s usually more than you expect.
If one person is pulling the party’s weight or seeming overpowered, don’t just say, “No!”
to his ability if it is not broken. Instead, consider overwhelming him with needing to rely
on his favorite tactic.
For example, if a someone is doing a lot of damage via sneak attack, making fights with
overwhelming numbers of foes that need sneak attacking to die now is often far more
interesting than saying, “No. You can’t sneak attack because I say so.”
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For another example, if a caster enjoys pre-buffing the party into uberness, dispel magic
is probably appropriate. Mind you, actions spent dispelling are actions not spent directly
killing the opposition.
The CR system demands a summary. This is my interpretation of the CR system: A
lone CR2 against a level 2 character is meant to be a toss-up, mostly decided by
The CR system is most accurate against casters, who, by their spell lists, define level-
appropriate abilities. A Wizard20 is a CR20 threat. A Fighter20 might be a CR8 threat.
Rarely are fights 1 big creature versus a party. The action economy dictates that
one side is almost always greatly outmatched, and the odds are probably favoring the
PCs. Instead, foes tend to come in packs so the entire party can do something and feel
Often, a fight can radically change in difficulty on a failed save. Maybe the party
Fighter dies from a cone of cold. Maybe an enemy Wizard falls victim to color spray.
Usually a failed save means someone’s out of the fight, meaning a pack of 20 imps is a
lot less threatening when half of them are blind and slowed.
Skills vary widely with their expected usefulness. More people want to be able to
hear and see better, especially when Spot, Listen, and Perception checks can notice a
sneaky opponent when magic will not. Few people care about treating injuries with the
Heal skill when cure spells are around.
Skills in general decline in usefulness as magic levels increase. Climbing,
jumping, and swimming are fine modern day sports, but if you could replace the need
for such things with a polymorph spell, would you?
Feats vary widely with their expected usefulness. Dodge grants +1 AC some of
the time. Improved Initiative grants +4 initiative all of the time.
Leadership is core, and it grants an extra party character in exchange for a feat. Mind
you, he’s two levels lower, but if built well, he will still contribute.
Pathfinder Core contains the highest concentration of most powerful spells in
the game. Some were changed since 3.5, but the essence is the same.
Banning these spells and abilities, or attaching significant drawbacks, is NOT
NECESSARILY THE ANSWER!
There are more uses to planar binding than enslaving genies for wish farms.
Divinations spoil plots that demand hiding information, but their use can still provide a
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challenge if the secrets they obtain are part of a greater challenge.
You may learn the secret path in the dragon’s lair, but it’s filled with lots of danger you
can’t just walk or teleport past.
The game assumes that if you can access a spell (like a level 9 Wizard being
able to teleport) then you can use it reliably! Certainly, there are counters. Rarely
are there surprises so bad as to deter an eligible caster from casting teleport again.
Similarly, planar binding spells call real creatures to serve your for a certain
time span. Rather than a game master saying, “I’m banning planar binding,”
or “Just try to bind a creature! <evil look>”, the players and game masters
need to talk about safe limits of this and every ‘troublesome’ spell. This
knowledge applies in and out of character.
Assumedly, a character knows how his abilities work before he uses them, just
because he has them. A Wizard who casts web on marshy ground expects the web to
hold and creatures to be stuck because the spell says so. “Real life” physics are not
expected to apply unless the rules were stated so beforehand.
If rules of the game world change on the fly, the players should be able to act on this
knowledge and redo their action.
Some spells change the world. Having reliable access to these spells changes the course
of the challenge and almost always the verisimilitude of the world.
Antimagic field is usually considered a universal counter. Casting a counterspell
works, but is rarely used because of the dependence on having a specific spell handy.
Casters and ranged units can walk out of the 10’ radius spell (ooh, tiny!) and do their
job. Melee units need to be in close range to hurt their victims, meaning they lose their
Counters to antimagic field: There are plenty of instantaneous Conjuration (Creation)
effects that work when brought into the field. Alternatively, alter the environment (like
cause a cave-in) or hurl boulders or painful objects via telekinesis. For more info, see
the guide Anti-Antimagic: How to Cast in an Area Where Magic Won’t Normally Function!
Dispel magic series (including disjunction) will also take out most of these lingering
Counters: Spellblade weapon enchantment (Player’s Guide to Faerun 120), spell
turning, blocking line of effect, contingency: get out of the way or block line of effect,
lots of concurrent effects, super high caster levels.
Compulsions & Charms. Dominate person is awesome until it happens to you. And
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you fail your save. By rolling a 1.
By making someone your slave, you can get so much information. Also, when you need
a bodyguard or, well, body, you can use your puppet.
Charms are a lesser version, only heavily motivating enemies into becoming your friends
instead of losing all free will of their own.
Compulsions are more inclined to break plots with prominent figures that need to do
something. Without them, what would happen to the world?
Counters: Spell resistance. Immunity to mind-affecting effects. A high Will save. Spell
turning. False leads. Information that leads to difficult situations and decisions.
Divinations. Scrying is the big spell here. Bards, Clerics, Druids, and Wizards can
scry… so long as they have a target. How would you like to know what the Big Bad is up
Speak with dead can solve many murder mysteries by having the victim identify the
Counters: False leads. Information that leads to difficult situations and decisions.
Immunities. Sometimes, the best or only way to overcome magic is through magic.
Usually, people dislike being the subject of ill magical effects. Saying, “NO!” to your
opponent’s favored tactic requires him to quickly adapt, if he can.
In a campaign until level 10 or so, these immunity spells get little use because the
effects which require immunity are rare.
If the campaign goes to level 15, these immunity spells increase in usefulness. The
higher you go, the more likely you are to encounter creatures with these and need them
D&D 3.5 has core spells that grant flat-out immunity to some effects. Death ward
makes the subject immune to negative energy and [Death] spells. True seeing renders
most illusions useless. Mind blank ignores all mind-affecting effects and attempts to
magically divine a creature’s location. Freedom of movement bypasses all movement-
impairing effects, such as slow, grease, web, entangle, and grappling.
Pathfinder keeps freedom of movement and true seeing as-is. Death ward provides a
bonus against [Death] effects but otherwise keeps its immunity to negative energy.
Mind blank got gutted, and provides only +3 more against divinations and mind-
affecting abilities than the +5 Cloak of Resistance you’re expected to have at level 15.
Counters: Dispel magic. Counterspelling. Situations where the immunity isn’t worth it.
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Resurrection. Spells that raise the dead are more a problem for world consistency.
(Why assassinate someone you believe has the resources to be raised?) Adventuring
parties depend on these to keep going.
Counters: Lack of material components. The soul is not free or is not willing to return.
Stopping someone without killing him like with flesh to stone. Long-dead creatures can’t
be revived with such magic.
Simulacrum. This is a level 7 spell and meant to be powerful. I’m not sure how this
was intended to be used, but as written, it can make whatever creature you need but at
half its HD. In many cases, you can make a creature that’s stronger than you with
enough ruby dust and in 3.5, experience points.
Needing a body part is normally a deterrent, except body parts have no listed gold cost,
and every caster worth his spells at least one of these:
Spell Component Pouch: A spellcaster with a spell component pouch is assumed to have all the material
components and focuses needed for spellcasting, except for those components that have a specific cost, divine
focuses, and focuses that wouldn't fit in a pouch. –Player’s Handbook 3.5 page 130 and Pathfinder Core page
Counters: Lack of material components. Interrupted casting time. Desired creature
doesn’t exist in this campaign setting or is beyond your Knowledge check. Creatures
become a greater liability than asset.
Teleportation. Teleport is a staple Wizard spell. Who doesn’t want to zip around the
universe in 6 seconds or less?
One problem is nullifying the thrill of hard-won discovery. Also, being able to pop into a
location for which the GM is unprepared often is asking for trouble.
Society’s stability depends on people needing proper access codes. Bank vault security
is useless against someone who can jump in, take what he wants, and leave with barely
Long-range teleportation can also mean popping out when in trouble, resting a day, and
popping back in as if nothing bad happened. Many games already do something similar
but with parties resting in the ‘dungeon.’
Blind teleporting is asking for trouble, but if you can scry on a target, prepare to ambush
him, teleport to him, and take him out without him realizing what went on, why wouldn’t
Counters: Dimensional anchor, dimensional lock, forbiddance, silence. Difficult
decisions and situations upon arrival.
Time stop. Now the universe works on your schedule!
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More seriously, time stop is a level 9 spell, the most powerful non-epic spell level there
is. Rocket tag at this level almost demands time stop to grant enough rounds to do
what you need.
Counters: Spell Stowaway: time stop (epic feat). Counterspelling. Blocking line of
effect with wall of force, forcecage, or prismatic wall. Using antimagic fields where you
don’t want time stoppers to go.
Classes work differently in play than in theory. Even an optimized caster- one
who can seemingly do everything- may not dominate the game in a party of
weaker classes. Tactics and optimization levels are major parts on how each
class and character turns out.
Stamina is a major factor in how well classes perform. A combat caster is only
as powerful as his ability to cast spells that affect his enemies. If he loses
initiative, or a creature makes its save, he may soon need someone to save
D&D and Pathfinder are meant as team games. Even if a caster can try to do
everything himself, he risks alienating his teammates regardless of whether he
Finally, class balance changes for the amount of combat versus non-combat
time. Ultimately, being useful is having the right toolset for the job.
Spells per day are the main limiting factor on any caster. Given ample time and
money, a Wizard can acquire whatever spell he desires and can cast it in some form,
too! (All classes can buy items that cast X spell Y times per day.)
Other full casters are similar. Often, magic will replace a great majority of nonmagical
means, including some things non-casters can do. Whether it’s a problem is up to your
Why shouldn’t everyone play a full caster? Sometimes, players don’t want magic.
Sometimes, magic is unreliable (antimagic fields or wild magic zones). Sometimes, the
campaign would benefit from fewer casters in the group.
Ultimately, D&D is a team game. Casters who try to do it all themselves (especially
when they can’t) make things less interesting for their fellows. Casters who can ‘do it
all’ probably haven’t been challenged enough. Only omnipotent creatures are invincible,
but a paranoid caster of sufficient level comes close.
The best place for a very powerful caster to be in a group of “weak” non-
casters is as support. As a Wizard, you could cast flesh to stone on the Big Baddie
and hope he fails his save. If he fails, he’s gone but the party didn’t get to do anything
significant. If he passes, there went a spell and an action.
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What about a group of full casters? Some would say this is interparty balance taken
to an extreme. Regardless, the group is self-sufficient or will soon be. From a player’s
perspective, this means everyone can contribute meaningfully to non-redundant roles.
From a game master’s perspective, challenging the group may be more difficult. If the
group has the right spell prepared, a solution is usually a standard action away.
Suddenly making magic unreliable (antimagic field or wild magic zones) will probably
turn the party useless. I advise reading the rules and learning what spells counter your
group’s favorite tactics. If your Wizard likes Evard’s black tentacles, include foes with
high grapple bonuses, tremendous size, greased clothing, or/and freedom of movement.
Almost anything can be countered. Not necessarily counterspelled, but enemies can
adapt to tactics, make saves, or use abilities that specifically counter the party’s moves,
like freedom of movement versus grappling, above.
Players enjoy the game more when the game master plays by the established
rules. Common antimagic field use by the GM is generally considered unsporting and
unfun, if legal.
Be careful on nullifying what characters are meant to do! Players may be
thoroughly annoyed that the game master has rendered them “useless” in the name of
Even casters have finite resources and are somewhere between “passable” and “useless”
without their magic.
Non-casters are usually less able to adapt. They rely on feats, skills, and items, or
resources that are not easily changed every day. Casters with fixed amounts of spells
known- Sorcerers, Bards, and so on- are in a similar position.
As an aside, there are enough martial archetypes to seemingly justify a
plethora of warrior base classes.
-Holy warrior: Cleric, Paladin
-Living off the land ‘natural guy’: Druid, Ranger
-Savage, angry man: Barbarian
-Sneaky, skilled dude: Rogue
-Unarmed assailant: Monk
I believe there’s too much specialization for martial classes. Clerics and Druids are the
full casters on that list and mostly replace their more martial counterparts, Paladins and
In contrast, all of these are viable Wizard archetypes:
-Binder of demons, devils, angels, and extraplanar forces: Conjurer
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-Leader of the army of the dead: Necromancer
-Mind controller: Enchanter
-Shape changer: Transmuter
-Warder of large structures: Abjurer
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CHAPTER 7: CHARACTER ROLES
If core is unbalanced and the game doesn’t work like we think it does, then what do we
do? How will characters act? Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego?
Traditional fantasy has the four roles of Sneaky McPickLock (‘Rogue’), Beefy McFighter
(‘Fighter’), Buffy McBandaid (‘Cleric’), and Magic McMissile (‘Wizard’).
While D&D 3.0 was balanced around the assumption of blaster Wizards and healer
Clerics, things didn’t turn out that way. D&D 3.5 Clerics got divine power to turn them
into front-liners comparable to the Fighter for a short time. Add in divine favor,
righteous might, prayer, bless, spiritual weapon, and 9 levels of spells, and a Fighter’s
feats pale in comparison.
Similarly, arcane casters can blast, but rarely as well as a well-built melee character can
hit. Also, arcane casters must use spell slots to shoot off a certain number of boom
spells per day.
Once people on the Internet talked about D&D 3.x, many people realized that making
people fall down with grease or puke their guts out with stinking cloud was a more
efficient use of magical energies.
The Main Roles
Unlike many fantasy games, there is no dedicated ‘tank’ role in D&D 3.x and
Pathfinder. Opponents can pick their targets instead of being compelled to attack
some guy who can probably take it. The best way to seem threatening is to do
something worth stopping. For example, cast a spell.
There’s no ‘healer’ role, at least in the traditional ‘spend my action and magical
energy to meaningfully reduce your HP deficit’ way. Buy several wands of cure
light wounds or lesser vigor (Spell Compendium) to heal between fights. Equip
everyone with a Healing Belt (Magic Item Compendium). Buff your party to prevent
damage instead of taking it, and your party comes out ahead.
Clerics, Druids, and divine casters can try to fill the traditional healer role. The heal
spell may work, but that requires level 11 for Clerics and level 13 for Druids. Using your
turn to heal someone for half a blow’s worth of HP is generally inefficient.
In my experience as a player, determining who lives (based on who I can reach in time
with a touch spell) is a major strain on my nerves. After that incident, I told everyone
to buy a Healing Belt and heal themselves.
Crusaders (Tome of Battle) are unique among classes. They can heal by using certain
maneuvers, but they damage enemies and heal allies at the same time. Most their
healing depends on randomly being granted a healing maneuver and hitting a foe with
it. Healing this way is unreliable, but powerful.
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-‘Skill monkey’ is a valid role. Sometimes, a lock isn’t worth a spell to open, and
bashing through it is unwise Stealth can be deadly if done well, especially since true
seeing doesn’t detect creatures hidden by nonmagical means. Maybe you need to talk
your way out of trouble and your party Rogue conveniently put ranks in Sense Motive
and Diplomacy. Creative players can use skills in unanticipated yet fruitful ways!
-‘One rounding any officially published creature through damage’ is a valid
role. Non-casters have more likelihood to specialize in dealing damage since they can
hit and hit and hit and hit. Besides, if you can’t alter reality to suit yourself, your
damage output is a valid gauge of your contribution.
-‘Forcing everything I see to save or become useless this fight, during which
time they may be slaughtered’ is a valid role. Offensive arcane casters do this role
From level 1, a Wizard has grease to turn a battlefield into a comedy of errors.
He can use color spray or sleep to render opponents useless. He can prepare all of
these spells and deal them out as he sees fit.
Level 2 spells grant glitterdust and web. Want to blind your foe and nix his
invisibility? Want to keep your foes immobile while you take pot shots at them?
Level 3 spells grant slow and stinking cloud. Slowed is a major drawback to front-
liners who depend on moving more than 5’ per round and acting. Nauseated is a nasty
condition, preventing victims from doing anything useful, but it’s a Fortitude save.
Level 4 spells grant Evard’s black tentacles, solid fog, and fear. Squeeze your
foes into itty bitty wittle pieces with long, ropey tentacles that deal damage. Use solid
fog to reduce enemy mobility (down to 5’ per action in 3.5) and stick them fulla
tentacles! Use fear to make your foes panic in terror if they fail their save, or render
them shaken even if they save!
I’ve only mentioned a small number of core Wizard spells. Druids and Clerics get
their own crowd control, and all full casting classes can get higher-level magic. Spells
only get more powerful from here!