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.


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