Thu
Jun 21 2012 4:30pm

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Pathfinder’s Advanced Race Guide

Advanced Race Guide is a catalogue of bits and pieces, odds and ends, and that makes it a resource that anyone who likes getting into the guts of the game should appreciate. The game master who has been trying to find just the right little gizmo to make a race work—“oh these ratlings ability to swarm would be a great way to finally tweak those bee people I wanted to have in my next campaign!”—will immediately get it. The player who has wanted to trick out a race to suit their newest character—“well, she’s a half-elf but her mother wasn’t just any elf, but a drow...”— will appreciate it as well. Those who get a kick out of playing a paragon of their species or adding racial zest to their character will also gobble up the racial feats, spells, items and class options—and game masters will again enjoy having a smorgasbord of options to repurpose for their own uses.

Ostensibly a book about various races—organized to give the most attention to the Core Races, a lot of attention to their Featured Races and a quick glance at the Uncommon Races— it serves that purpose as well as acting as a library of optional rules. Like any good gaming book, you can read it for fun; the entries are full of good ideas—the fechlings have shadow lanterns that cast shadows and have a racial ability that increases miss chance against them in dim lighting—and the art work is beautiful. The hipster sylph is a personal favorite. Built for their Pathfinder game and setting, you can pick up the races and play with them, right out of the box, if you aren’t the tinkering sort. I’ll tell you what, I wish someone had done that with a dhampir when my group played in Castle Ravenloft…

 

The Good

My favorite races in here actually surprised me. Duergar? They manage to keep their notorious enlarge ability…by dropping a lot of the smaller perks dwarves get, which streamlines them nicely. If you have a medium and a large duergar mini, you owe it to yourself to play one. The suli are another wonderfully built race—despite my incredible admiration for The Legend of Korra I’m not really a fan of elemental themes, but the mechanics for the suli are just elegant and delightful. The vishkanya are another race that stand out; focused on poison and inspired by the “poison girls” of Indian myth, they have evocative skill bonuses and neat abilities.

Aasimar and tieflings have always been darlings of mine, probably because I’ve got a boundless affection for Planescape. Here the aasimar have a feat path to wings while the tieflings don’t…which I actually like. It helps keep them separate, give them distinct identities, and if your tiefling really wants wings, you can just crib the feat with your game master’s permission. Similarly, if you want to make a “dark aasimar,” like say the child of a fallen angel or grigori—a natural place for the mind to wander—you can just switch out daylight for darkness or fiddle around with other alternate racial traits…which is what this book is for. That freedom to meddle and the transparency of balance is the joy of it!

Because this is Pathfinder, not everyone is white or male. Not all the inspiration is Western. Those are things you can’t take for granted—as I noted in the “Modest Proposal For Increased Diversity”—and so I am happy to be able to point them out as virtues here. Even better, the diversity isn’t misappropriated or used as “exotica”; rather they are inventively and respectfully spun into new concepts. Take the wayang for example; a race of supernatural humanoids from the Plane of Shadow inspired by Javanese shadow puppets. Tengu and kitsune are obvious fits for any game with a Japanese flavor, as the nagaji, samsarans and vanara are for a South East Asian inspired campaign.

 

The Bad

Goblins and kobolds remain too weak; I think there are players who want to play kobolds and goblins, but there options are basically to suck it up and play an underpowered character or to house rule a fix for them. Which, luckily, the Advanced Race Guide provides, but as it stands in the text, they aren’t really viable. I’d give kobolds something like the Vanara’s prehensile tail, personally. Goblins—well, I think making goblins an attractive race should be a Pathfinder priority, since they really are the game’s mascots.

The reverse of this are the drow, merfolk and strix, who are overpowered. With the drow, it is just as simple as the words “spell resistance.” An extra layer of magical protection is a huge gulf of power, and it scales to remain potent. Merfolk have bonuses to three attributes, no attribute penalties and a bonus to armor class—they seem to be counterweighted by a land speed of 5, but that is just a barrier to play. Either players will find a way around that—in which case they are unbalanced—or they won’t play them, in which case, why include them? In an aquatic campaign they’d obviously shine even brighter. Strix…well, strix can fly. Few things disrupt a low level game as much as flight. A well-built glide or short-hop mechanic could have provided a nice winged race for players, but strix just have a fly speed of 60 feet with average maneuverability.

 

The Ugly

I shouldn’t say “The Ugly,” really—what I should say is “The Boring.” Not on flavor—the races are developed and come with really gorgeous art—but mechanically they are…a bit dry. Take gillmen, for instance; a race of humans altered by the repugnant aboleth? Pretty neat idea…but mechanically they are largely just…amphibious. The gripplis are classic humanoids dating back to the first edition of ADnD, adorable little frogmen…who lack a nice piece of crunch to really catch your interest.

Hobgoblins and orcs might be playable—hobgoblins have no attribute penalties at all, if you can believe it—but they aren’t particularly interesting, sadly. The orc’s “Ferocity” is a nice start but the penalties to all their mental attributes is…troubling. The mindless savage, really? I know that these are based on the statistics from the Monster Manual but I have higher hopes for the orcs. I personally think orcs should be one of the premiere races of fantasy gaming…but that is a rant for another day.

Most of the problems I had with the Advanced Race Guide are problems that are hold overs from Third Edition. Tiny little bonuses are a pet peeve of mine. Dwarves get a +2 versus poison? Pointless! How many times does a character get attacked by poison in their lifetime? Not enough for a +2 to be narratively visible...and you just know that if your dwarf is attacked with poison, or someone does try to charm your elf? One of three things will happen; you’ll either roll really well, blowing past the difficulty, roll so low that a small bonus is no help…or you’ll forget that you had a +2 till you are walking home from the game.

If you like that sort of thing, though, if that is how your brain works, let me recommend to you the svifneblin, who you’ll find a swiss army knife of assorted minor bonuses and similarly tiny penalties. Tengu have a 1d3 bite? Doesn’t a punch do 1d4 damage? Subdual, sure, but unless you are using your bite to chew through ropes, it isn’t really much of a perk. (Tengu are very balanced otherwise, I should note; they are one of the more well-constructed races) Catfolk have speed bonus when running or charging; wouldn’t it just have been easier and more concise to give them a higher base speed? I don’t need to be nickel and dimed. Pathfinder has fixed a lot of the underpowered classes by buffing them up, but a lot of the races I think need similar attention. You know what actually seems to be getting that right, surprisingly? Dungeons & Dragons Next.

(Cover by Wayne Reynolds, wayang by Ben Wooten, tengu by Paul Guzenko, grippli by Jorge Fares, kobold by Klaus Scherwinski; all images copyright Paizo.)


Mordicai Knode has been saying for a while now that orcs need to be given credit as one of the big fantasy races; after all, they’ve got the Tolkien pedigree, don’t they? You can follow him on Twitter or on Tumblr.

24 comments
B McC
1. delascabezas
I will have you know my registration captcha was "Fairy-land ecaorts" - seemed pretty fitting.

I disagree with you about Dwarves. I ran an all-dwarven campaign once, and the dwarven poision resistance made a big difference in the 1-5 grind, where a giant scorpion can spell doom.

I do agree, however, that there was a lot of nickel-dime. It is always a tough balance to mathematically represent flavor, and then put it up against other flavor in other contexts. That being said, the race creation chapter is pretty beautiful. The breakdowns of the work they did, and the point-ability conversion system gives you a great set of guidelines to go out and -create- something. I think it is way more helpful to mechanically-intimidated newere DM's than vets, but I still found it a useful rule of thumb.

I hope if Paizo ever does take PF to the next level, the entire "racial modifier" aspect gets rolled into a trait envelope. DNDNext is not moving in this direction, which dissapoints me - I want more variability and modularity, as opposed to railroads and tired tropes carrying forward from hobbled Tolkenien archetypes...

The Tengu beak thing makes sense, if you consider that a small dagger deals 1d3 damage.
Kingtycoon
2. Kingtycoon
Fish Apes! Best race in any book - BY FAR.

I kinda like the PF goblins, and they make a decent mascot - but they're more... The PF goblin is like a Snotling (if you will) while the goblin in my mind's eye is more Gretchen -or Legend (if you prefer). Those guys don't seem to have a proper representation in these games.

You're right, of course, about the itty bonuses, they're like a pallative offered, some kind of chintsy feature meant to demonstrate a characteristic but which is mostly observed in the breach. You'll never remember how many times your dwarf resisted poision, but you'll remember the dozens of times that your dwarf is poisoned. It's related - somewhat - to the vastly overpowered mechanic you mention re - the Drow- Spell Resistance:

These extra tiers of randomness always put the players at the disadvantage. They'll have to roll more and more and more - it's as if the Cosmic GM is saying "Oh, you succeded that check? Well there's this whole other nested check that's even harder!" At some point this is - really, just what the game is about- challenge and endurance - but altogether too grindy. Just let the dwarfs be immune to poison, let the Elfs be immune to charm and sleep, let the Drow be... an NPC race, rarely appearing... Let the humans have some kind of magic resistance too while you're at it! I've personally resisted all the magic spells that have ever been cast at me, just for example, maybe humans are immune to compulsion spells? I think that's sensible - really it is -especially in line with the sort of generic 'humans are everything/everywhere' jibber-jabber.
Mordicai Knode
3. mordicai
1. delascabezas

I mean, a plus two? In certain unique circumstances-- a DM who has a ton of scorpian minis or something-- it is better than nothing but it is easy to overlook & just so...small. The only time small pluses are useful is when they are incremental & add to a stat that is actually on your character sheet-- like a +2 to Fortitude, that is handy, but a conditional +2 to Fortitude? I guarantee you that I'll either (like I said) forget it or roll a 1 or 20. If you are the kind of player who remembers those things or who feels like that you always just miss your save, then (like I say, too) check out the svirfneblin.

The beak thing-- a small dagger, okay, but same with a small punch? & also, how many fights do you have where you are unarmed? & if you are unarmed, that probably means the rest of the party is? I'm just saying, a d3 is small potatoes? & probably not worth the bother.

Anyhow, I think it is a little early to say what DnD Next is or isn't doing; sure, the playtest hasn't had the breakdown on how the races work but it is a playtest, after all, & comparing a playtest to a fairly advanced (but clever & well done & a good resource for rules of thumb) sourcebook is unfair. It does have dwarves who are immune to poisons though, which is an improvement in my book to a +2.
Mordicai Knode
4. mordicai
2. Kingtycoon

Skum, dear dear skum, gorgeous fishapes, servitors of the aboleth...the gillmen could have been weird, is what I'm saying, & they aren't.

Right; the legacy of nickle & dime, they...they make the math a little too near, a little too close to home. I am okay with drow as a PC race-- heck, here they are an NPC race with rules just in case you want one-- because I like the idea of breaking the monoculture. I think there should just be "elf" & that high elf, wood elf, drow elf could all be elven ethnicities. That is just me.
Kingtycoon
5. Kingtycoon
I will mention that the funnest thing in the 4th edition was the subversion possible among the races. They were all pretty equal and had powers that were quite easy to repurpose. Like my Brontotherium-man player who was mechanically a dragonborn and who's stomps did thunder damage.

Offering suites of powers at some kind of a premium to let playes build their own races - and even mutants, anomolies and so-forth - that's a strong direction I'd like to see explored in more games. You can make your character exactly what you want, if you'll invest the Bio-E.
Mordicai Knode
6. mordicai
5. Kingtycoon

I think 4e did a good job of giving (some) of their races a really good hook-- hey, a free breath fire action? Rad!-- & I think that is a lesson to learn from. It is no surprise that the races I cite all have a strong story hook & a strong mechanical hook! That is the best, because not only is it cool, but I want to play it-- & if I want to steal it, then so much the better! There is plenty in this book to steal; you mention Bio-E, but it is more "swapping." There is a lot of that, that is...sort of the core of the book. Being able to say "oh I'd rather have the ability to cast spells like a gnome, who cares if I lose only having to sleep 4 hours."
Kingtycoon
8. Herb888
I've always been partial to Tolkien's imagining that Orcs are mechanically clever, in a devious way.
Mordicai Knode
9. mordicai
8. Herb888

See, exactly! I think pigeonholing them as brutes is...well, I think it plays to a dangerous legacy of colonialism in fantasy...but I think it also reduces what should be a core piece of fantasy identity into a bland & slapdash stereotype.
Joseph Kingsmill
10. JFKingsmill16
We had a DM who made goblins terrifying to us no matter how high a level our characters were. Especially when we had to fight them in the underdark.

Right now I am playing a Bugbear Paladin and I can't wait to get this book.
Kingtycoon
11. Sly Drool Rockworm
Myself, I'd take up gaming again - after dropping it in High School after I got seriously addicted to music - if I could play a grindylow or an ur-vile.

Goblins? Orcs? Svart-alfar? Even Bodachs?

They don't compare to grindylows or ur-viles. Or even the Malarial Queenship!
Mordicai Knode
12. mordicai
10. JFKingsmill16

Oh sure; you can add class levels or just play them mean & smart-- I mean, isn't that the old Tucker's Kobolds yarn?-- but from a PC perspective, you don't want to be forced into suboptimal choices, you know? I'd in general prefer that humanoids were all...people, or if not people than explicitly not people. The halfway land of "montrous races" is what I don't like.
Mordicai Knode
13. mordicai
11. Sly Drool Rockworm

Well that is the point of this book-- & the point of being a Game Master for that matter! In the right campaign you could play whatever you want; just take an existing race, tweak the options, describe it differently, & blammo. Or if you don't like that, use the Race Builder & make it from scratch. Heck, create your own campaign setting where mosquito people & cactus people are the default races!
Kingtycoon
14. Kingtycoon
Character race is an interesting part of gaming- it's a litte jarring when you can't choose a race in a game - then again even in WoD or Blue Planet you get a selection of race-like characteristics. Now me? I don't like the statistical loading of races - I prefer the races to have some abilities and then to be kind of pretty much just like people. Likewise, I'm unmoved by concepts of game balance, so I'm down with some kind of person just being better or worse than the baseline.

But I get curious - what games do you think deal with races most effectively? For my money I'm saying Shadowrun has the win with the first edition D&D getting honorable mention.
Mordicai Knode
15. mordicai
14. Kingtycoon

Personally, in my campaign-- I use the World of Darkness for my fantasy game-- I use species as race, for one thing. WoD uses point buy for their stats, & what I do is give the races the same number of points but have them use different strategies for the point by. That is, humans prioritize categories, then put their points in, while one of my non-human races gets the same number of points in each category, etc.

I want races to actually influence your game play; I want them to actually play different, the way a "wizard" or a "fighter" has a different feel. I'm not sure what is my favorite, actually. I don't know if I can think of one that was gloriously different! As I mentioned, I think the 4e & DnD Next scheme of giving them legitimate powers-- & 4e's "racial options"-- was a decent direction.
Jordan Dennis
16. jddennis
Ah, darn. This review makes the book sound like such a disappointment. I was really hoping to finally get a good, official ruleset to run the Tour de France campaign that I've been considering...
Mordicai Knode
17. mordicai
16. jddennis

I don't mean to give that impressio...wait a minute now I get it!
Joseph Kingsmill
18. JFKingsmill16
I bought the pdf over this past weekend and I was disappointed that there isn't a thing about bugbears in it. It is going to be very useful in future campaigns just not in the current one.
Mordicai Knode
19. mordicai
18. JFKingsmill16

Well there are a couple of other goblinoids to crib from; the problem with bugbears, I'd guess, is that they are pretty bad-ass...3 hit dice, +4 Strength, +2 Dexterity, +2 Constitution, -2 Charisma, Darkvision, Scent, +3 natural armor, etc.
Joseph Kingsmill
20. JFKingsmill16
19 mordicai

Oh I know how badass they are. I'm playing a bugbear paladin of Ragathiel and he is awesome. We'll end up house ruling some of the goblin stuff for bugbears but it would have been nice to have some official race options to look through. :-)
Mordicai Knode
21. mordicai
20. JFKingsmill16

RIP Savage Species & all that. Still, I'd be on Team House Rule anyhow, that is just how I roll. Are you a weird Silence of the Lambs style Lovecraft bugbear?
Joseph Kingsmill
22. JFKingsmill16
21. Mordicai

Naaa, just a straight up bugbear who had his alignment altered by an artifact while he was leading a raid against a good aligned adventuring party. He is now trying to atone for the evil he has done while living in fear of becoming evil again.

I've played the creepy type of character like that before and I wanted to play him more like the fish out of water type. You know, trying to be all nice a teddy bear like in towns while forgetting his intimidation score is approaching 30. It's much more fun to role play.
Kingtycoon
23. Anon____
@JFKingsmill16 Check out Cromagh's Guide to Goblinoids by The Game Mechanics for some Bugbear goodness
Joseph Kingsmill
24. JFKingsmill16
@Anon- I already have it. It is pretty awesome! :-D
Kingtycoon
25. Grant Baugh
So I disagree with the strix being overpowered, though the reason for it being balanced does depend on the GM.

I played a strix recently and I have to say, flying didn't come up as often as you might think. Being in buildings and caves a lot means not a lot of room for flying.

Secondly, the entry on strix mentions how humans regard the strix as in essence, demons. My GM played on this all the time, to the point that NPCs often refused to work with my character. While this won't be an issue with other GMs or stories, for my character the power of flight didn't get close to overpowered.

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