Friday, July 6, 2012

Augury - Advanced Race Guide

The Advanced RaceGuide is the latest hardcover for Pathfinder – in this case one entirely dedicated to expand core races’ options, besides adding new races and even a race building system.

The hardcover follows Paizo’s high art and layout standards. The illustrations are in general very good and tend to avoid clichés, what is a nice touch. We have 255 color pages of material, divided in 4 chapters and 3 appendixes. The Advanced Race Guide follows a different structure from previous Pathfinder books. The 1st chapter is dedicated to the cores races; the 2nd chapter to the so-called featured races (creatures that while exotic aren’t more powerful or difficult to employ than the traditional elves and dwarves); the 3rd chapter deals with powerful, strange and weird new races; finally, the 4th chapter presents the race building system.

Each race described has complete racial traits (even those from the Core Rulebook), alternate racial rules, racial archetypes and new racial rules (things like feats, equipments, magic items and spells). Alternate racial rules presents alternate racial traits, suggested racial subtypes (by combining different racial traits) and favored class options; while Racial Archetypes brings new class archetypes. The only exception to this format are the sample races described in the 4th chapter – here we only get racial traits and a short paragraph of flavor.

Well, to the details…

Chapter 1 is all about expanding the core races, so we’ll take a closer look to it.

Dwarves: nice flavor description, reminding us that dwarves are a technological advanced (not a stagnant) race. However, many of the new options harkens back to AD&D, like the magic resistance alternate racial trait and the Elder Dwarf racial subtype. The racial archetypes are Exarch (Inquisitor) and Foehammer (an awesome Fighter archetype), Forgemaster (for the Cleric, with a nice rune mechanic) and the Stonelord (a cool stone-themed Paladin).

Elves: Elves get a bigger (but bland) flavor text. The race gets excellent alternate racial traits – like Drakvision (Drow!), Dreamspeaker (great flavor), Desert Runner (Darksun!) etc. (unfortunately there’s no amphibious trait for aquatic elves). The new racial archetypes are Ancient Lorekeeper (an Oracle that dabbles in arcane magic) and the Spellbinder (Wizard). Fans of older editions will also be very happy with the Bladesing-… I mean… the Spell Dancer archetype (Magus). Finally, there’s the Treesinger, a plant-aspected druid (with rules for plant companions).

Gnomes: The flavor text here tries to focus on the race’s alien nature. The new racial subtypes range from the macabre (dread gnome) and weird (lava gnome?) to the classical (gear gnome) and traditional (traveler gnome). The racial archetypes are Experimental Gunsmith (Gunslinger), the Prankster (Bard) and the Saboteur (Alchemist).

Half-elves: Here’s another bland race. I wish they’d kept the psionic flavor of half-elves (from the original Pathfinder Campaign Setting), but given that Paizo doesn’t officially support for now any psionic system, that would be asking too much. The racial subtypes are very straightforward – Elf-Raised, Drow-Descended and Human-Raised. The racial archetypes are Bonded Witch (idem), Bramble Brewer (Alchemist) and Wild Caller (Summoner).

Half-orcs: a very nice text. Pathfinder half-orc is the darkest and potentially most mature race available for players and I’m glad that they didn’t flinch from this view with The Advanced Race Guide. The alternate racial traits are great in general: beastmaster, bestial, cavewight, shaman’s apprentice, toothy etc. The racial subtypes are arena-bred, deep kin, feral, mountain clan and mystic. Half-orcs also gain the coolest summoner archetype in my opinion – the Blood God Disciple (whose ability Avatar Gambit is probably one of the most originals so for). We also get the Hateful Rager (Barbarian), the awesome Redeemer (Paladin), the quintessential Skulking Slayer (a great twist to the Rogue and the coolest ever name for an archetype). The new feats keep this high standard, turning the Half-orc in one of the most fun (and strong) races of Pathfinder.

Halflings: nothing new with the flavor text; halflings still are a weird mix of kenders’ behavior and Tolkien’s hobbits (to make things worse, the iconic art of the race here is using boots). The alternate racial traits manage to improve the race, with fun mechanics like ‘craven’ and useful abilities like ‘underfoot’ and ‘low blow’. The new racial archetypes are Community Guardian (Oracle), Filcher (Rogue), Underfoot Adept (Monk) and a new cavalier order of dog-/wolf-riding halflings – the Order of the Paw.

Finally, Humans: the flavor text works more as a reference to other races than as description of the human race (which is fine by me). The alternate racial traits for humans define their place of birth (cities, mountains, forests etc).; although there’s the Heroic trait – an interesting concept that reminds of the Greek view of ‘heroes’. The racial subtypes, henceforth, follow the same structure. The new racial archetypes are the Buccaneer (Gunslinger), the Feral Child (oddly for the Druid), the excellent Wanderer (Monk) and a new bloodline – Imperious (you’re a descendent from the kings of Humanity’s Golden Age). Human feats deal mostly with the themes of willpower, luck and destiny (there’s some juxtaposition here with the halflings luck). However, we do get 2 very strong combat feats that will be the envy of every non-human Fighter – Martial Versatility and Martial Mastery.

Overall, the 1st Chapter wins by size if not originality – there’s a lot of stuff here. Half-orcs are the winners, with Dwarves and Humans close behind. As usual, Gnomes and Halfling suffer from the lack of a strong concept and mechanical role (at times like these I wish both races were simply merged).

Chapter 2 presents the Featured Races – and there’re a lot of them. Because of that, I’ll make a quicker review of this chapter’s content. The races described with full mechanical and flavor texts are: Aasimar (from the Bestiary 1), Catfolk (Bestiary 3), Dhampir (Bestiary 2), Drow (Bestiary 1), Fetchling (Bestiary 2), Goblin (the Bestiary 1), Hobgoblin (idem), Ifrit (Bestiary 2), Kobold (Bestiary 1), Orc (idem), Oread (Bestiary 2), Ratfolk (Bestiary 3),  Sylph (Bestiary 2), Tengu (from the Dragon Empires Gazetteer), Tiefling (Bestiary 1), and Undine (Bestiary 2). I do miss the Lizardmen, the Gnoll and the Ogre, but more on those later.

While I’m aware that complete racial traits for players were already provided for each of those race (through the Bestiaries), I hoped that The Advanced Race Guide would give us a fresh look, maybe a few new twists or traits. But it didn’t. However, this isn’t flaw, as each race gets alternate racial traits, new subtypes and class archetypes, besides racial feats, equipment and spells. Again, lots of stuff.

For those that don’t know about these races yet, some clarifications: Aasimars are celestial-blooded humans, Tieflings are fiend-blooded, Ifrits are fire-aspected planetouched, Sylphs are air-aspected, Undines are water-aspected and Oreads are earth-aspected (they replace D&D’s Genasi, which aren’t part of the OGL). Dhampirs are “half-vampires” and Fetchlings are shadow-aspected humans.

Chapter 3 introduces the Uncommon Races – usually representing races that are considered legendary by most civilized nations or that live at far or specific locations. We’re still dealing with mechanically simple races here – no giants or monstrous creatures.

The Uncommon Races are Changelings (the spawn of Hags), Duergar (Bestiary 1), Gillmen (Bestiary 3), Gripplis (Bestiary 2), Kitsune (Dragon Empires Gazetteer), Merfolk (Bestiary 1), Nagaji (Dragon Empires Gazetteer), Samsarans (idem), Strix (Inner Sea Campaign Setting), Sulis (Bestiary 3), Svirfneblin (Bestiary 1), Vanaras (Bestiary 3), Vishkanyas (idem) and Wayangs (Dragon Empires Gazetteer). Each race gets one new racial archetype.

The Changelings are an all-new race, introduced here (I wish more there’re more); Gillmen are part of the Golarion setting and the last remnant of the sunken Azlant continent; and Strix are a race of dark birdmen with an yet darker reputation, also from Golarion. The Dragon Empires Gazetteer's creatures are Pathfinder “oriental” races. Vishkanyas are an awesome race of humanoids with poisonous blood, also from Dragon Empires – it’s about time these guys got racial traits.

After this menagerie we’re finally presented to Chapter 4, the Race Builder. Here’s The Advanced Race Guide’s main feature – a point-based system for creating (theoretically) any race for your Pathfinder games. Regardless of the system’s qualities or flaws, the Race Builder won me over by adopting a simple design decision – that monsters and player characters don’t follow the same rules. I can’t stress how much I love this. If you remember the mechanical aberration that was Savage Species sourcebook for 3.5, with table after table of racial Hit Dice progressions then you know about what I’m talking about (or no, after all, YMMV).  The Advanced Race Guide disregards creature stats from the Bestiaries when building PC races – and it works smoothly (it also allows you to play with all kind of cool monsters, like centaurs, ogres and tiny fey). Ogres, for example, are a Large Humanoid (Giant), with Normal Speed, +4 Str, +2 Con, -2 Int, -2 Char), Xenophobic (a Language Quality), Natural Armor, Reach, Low-Light Vision and Darkvision. Powerful, but simple.

The Race Builder divides races in three basic categories (Standard, Advanced and Monstrous), based on how much Race Points they’re built and the number traits for which type that they can buy. The traits are also divided in Standard, Advanced and Monstrous. Standard races are built with 1-10 RPs, with a maximum of 3 traits of each category; Advanced races range from 11-20 RPs and can have a maximum of 4 traits for each category; while Monstrous races have 20+ RPs and a maximum of 5 traits of each type.

After defining a race’s concept, you pick its Type Quality (a.k.a. Creature Type) – there’re some advices here on how to handle certain types, besides two entire new Subtypes (half-construct and half-undead, which are less expensive and complicated than the Construct and Undead Qualities). Next topic is Size: Large, Medium, Small and Tiny – I like these limitations (specially the possibility of Tiny races). It is, after all, almost impractical to use Huge PCs. Then you pick your Base Speed Quality (Step 4). Ability Score Modifier Qualities here your next step; they’re consolidated in 10 easy categories (instead of using a direct point-buy system, like GURPS). After that you pick your Language Quality.

Finally, we get to the crunchiest bits – Racial Traits. This is the Race Builder’s core and presents all kinds of racial advantages and disadvantages. Things like exceptional Ability Scores, natural armor, flying (and movement in general), amphibious, energy resistance, skill bonus, bonus feats, weakness etc. This isn’t a pure effect-based system, as most Racial Traits care collected in specific packages (like Deathless Spirit, Breeze-Kissed and Elven Immunities).

At the chapter’s end we get the complete mathematic on each core, featured and uncommon race previous detailed in the book. The Advanced Race Guide also uses this chapter to present racial traits (and only that) for some old (and new) monsters, giving good examples of how to use the Race Builder (and certainly making a lot of players happy). The new “races” detailed here are: Centaur, Drider, Gargoyle, Gnoll, Lizardfolk, Ogre, Gathlain (a small flying fey attuned to ivies), Kasatha (a Thark rip-off), the Trox (a hulking alien multi-limbed thing), the Wyrwood (wooden constructs made by a long-dead archwizard), the Wyvaran (half-kobold, half-wyvern, with an art that make it too badass given its origin).

The Advanced Race Guide has three appendixes: the first with Age Categories for all core, featured and uncommon races; the second with Height and Weight; the third with a Spell Index. The book also has a general index.

What is the conclusion of this Augury. Does the The Advanced Race Guide is a good product? You can bet all your goblins that it is. It uses a more simple and user-friendly approach to race design. Totally! It is an obligatory acquisition? No. You can keep playing Pathfinder just fine without it, but it does help (a lot) GMs that enjoy exotic PCs and setting buit without deriving too much from cannon design.

The Advanced Race Guide provides a good, direct and fun system to build new races, something that I never saw in D&D. It also has basic advice on how to balance encounters for a party of monstrous PCs. However, it doesn’t give good options on how to balance a party with standard, advanced and monstrous PC (something that’s definitely to come up if you’re using this book). This – and the lack of more new and full-fleshed races – is perhaps The Advanced Race Guide’s only true flaws. What happens when a party has an ogre barbarian and a gnome fighter adventuring together? One is obviously much more stronger than the other. You can talk that all you want about how the old Complete Humanoid’s Handbook (for AD&D 2nd) was broken and all – but at least it did placed severe (and interesting!) limitations on most monstrous races. Paizo’s already has a good precedent for balancing races with different power levels – just take a look at the Council of Thieves Adventure Path Player’s Guide – and I wished they something along these lines here.

Addendum (and possible House Rule): Personally, I think that the Hero Points’ rule (from the Advanced Player’s Guide) may be a perfect solution for the problem above. Weaker races get Hero Points to counterbalance any mechanical deficit in the face of Advanced/Monstrous Races. This of course will vary with each campaign. For example, if a typical campaign takes places mostly on the surface and in heavily populated areas, then a Drow is going to suffer several social drawbacks (and yes, I do believe that social/roleplay “disadvantages” are a valid way of counterbalancing power disparity); however, if the same campaign takes place in the wilderness (or the underworld), then the Drow has clearly an advantage and – perhaps – the other PCs should begin the campaign with 1 Hero Point.