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Hybrid Class Month—Week One (February 2016)
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Hybrid Class Month—Week One (February 2016)

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Four Horsemen Blog (February 2016)

Hybrid Class Month Week 1 – Class Design

Welcome back to the Four Horsemen Blog hosted by d20pfsrd.com for Hybrid Class Month! In addition to weekly posts about classes we are releasing four brand new hybrid base classes this month — the renegade (gunslinger/rogue), fury (barbarian/monk), blasphemer (antipaladin/bard), and shifu (monk/kineticist) through our partnership with Rogue Genius Games!

Class Design

I’ve been doing a lot of class design lately, and it can be some of the most challenging work to get right. You have to find a large unfilled design niche, plus it has to be balanced against all the existing classes. Hybridized classes make this easier in three ways. First, the niche is obvious, which helps a lot with creativity. Usually just saying something like ninja/ranger or alchemist/bard is at least enough to get a good creative process going. Second, you don’t have to make everything completely from scratch, and can shamelessly draw from both contributing classes. Lastly, balance is made easier because you only have to make sure it is roughly even to the classes you draw from.  

There are, of course, pitfalls to avoid. If you draw too much from the base classes it becomes an easy copy/paste exercise with a dash of rebranding. Likewise, there might be a strong temptation to stack up the best of both… but you might end up with some sort of broken paladin/wizard that overshadows either already powerful class.

Tiered Class Features

In general, my personal process is basically a guess and check. My first stab is to basically do whatever “feels” right or sounds cool, but then to follow it up with careful comparisons. In the back of my mind, I have a three-level tier of basic class features which helps.

Tier 1: These are abilities that define the class and are generally speaking their most powerful trait. The class probably has other features that build off of this ability. When creating archetypes, these abilities are usually not completely removed, but altered in some manner. Examples: bardic performance, rage, and sneak attack.

Tier 2: These are abilities that while powerful, are obviously operating on a lower level than tier 1 abilities. These might also be downgraded tier 1 abilities (like a slayer’s reduced sneak attack). These are the sort of abilities that archetypes commonly alter or remove in favor of different abilities. Examples: arcane bond, barbarian damage reduction, bonus feats, divine grace, evasion, fast movement, trapfinding, and weapon training.

Tier 3: These are abilities that give relatively minor or situational benefits. These are inherently inferior to tier 1 and tier 2 abilities, and generally a part of a class primarily for flavor. A common mistake in archetype construction is to remove a tier 3 ability and replace it with a tier 2 ability. Examples: cantrips, still mind, timeless body, trap sense, well-versed, and woodland stride.

Likewise, base class features (Hit Dice, skills, BAB, and saves) can be tiered in this manner.

Tier 1: d10 or d12 HD, strong BAB progression, 8+ Int modifier skill ranks per level, all strong saves, heavy armor proficiency.

Tier 2: d8 HD, medium BAB progression, 4-6+ Int modifier skill ranks per level, two strong saves, martial weapon proficiency, light or medium armor proficiency.

Tier 3: d6 HD, low BAB progression, 2+ Int modifier skill ranks per level, one strong save, simple (or no) weapon proficiency, no armor proficiency.

You might notice spellcasting doesn’t appear even in tier 1, mostly because it is usually a step up from even several tier 1 abilities. A paladin or ranger’s spellcasting might be roughly equivalent to a tier 1 or strong tier 2 ability, but a wizard’s could require many tier 1 boosts to compare.

I use this as a rough rule-of-thumb during review. Naturally, there is a big difference between (for example) a barbarian’s fast movement and a monks, or venom immunity and evasion. Likewise, some class abilities might be “two” tier equivalent abilities when compared to another class. A druid’s nature bond seems like a tier 1, but a cleric gets two domains in comparison to the druid’s one. So, the cleric’s domains are actually two tier 1 abilities.

If you are combining two classes, you don’t want to throw together all the tier 1 abilities or basic class features. That’s how you end up with a full spellcaster with d10 HD, fighter base attack bonus, and bonus feats every other level. It may also be tempting to take a handful of tier 1 abilities and no tier 2 or 3, but then you run the risk of boring “dead” levels where nothing of consequence is gained. Even if you carefully space out incremental increases to the abilities, it can still be relatively boring. The reverse can also happen; with loading up on tier 2 and 3 abilities, but finding you are overwhelmed with minor stuff and less specialized than other classes.

Breaking Down the Classes

Using the tier breakdown, it becomes easier to see how classes compare or how to set a “cost” for individual abilities. One of the hybrid classes I designed for release this month is a barbarian/monk called the Fury. The fury is intended to be a chaotic martial artist given focus and drive by passions, where lawful monks seek calm discipline.

Barbarian

Abilities: Barbarians possess a good mix of abilities across all tiers—rage (tier 1), fast movement (tier 2), trap sense (tier 3), rage powers x10 (tier 2 each), uncanny dodge (tier 2), improved uncanny dodge (tier 2), and damage reduction (tier 2).

Class Features: Barbarians have pretty impressive base class features—d12 HD (tier 1), strong BAB (tier 1), 4+ Int skills (tier 2), martial weapon proficiency (tier 2), and medium armor proficiency (tier 2).

Total = x3 tier 1, x17 tier 2, and x1 tier 3

Monks

Abilities: Monks are more heavily focused on having a lot of mid- and low-tier abilities—bonus feats (tier 2), flurry of blows (tier 2), stunning fist (tier 2), unarmed strike (tier 2), evasion (tier 2), improved evasion (tier 2), fast movement (tier 2), maneuver training (tier 2), still mind (tier 3), ki pool (tier 2), high jump (tier 2), wholeness of body (tier 2), abundant step (tier 2), quivering palm (tier 2), empty body (tier 2), slow fall (tier 2), purity of body (tier 3), diamond body (tier 2), diamond soul (tier 2), timeless body (tier 3), tongue of the sun and moon (tier 3), and perfect self (tier 1).

Class Features: Monks are pretty middle-ground on base class features as opposed to the more powerful barbarian—d8 HD (tier 2), medium BAB (tier 2), all good saves (tier 1), 4+ Int skills (tier 2), poor weapon and armor proficiencies (tier 3).

Total = x2 tier 1, x20 tier 2, x5 tier 3

While it looks like the monk has more abilities than the barbarian, most of these abilities are lower tier. The barbarian has an additional tier 1 trait the monk does not possess. This supports conventional wisdom. While both the barbarian and monk are melee combatants, the barbarian is better in a straight-up fight, while the monk has more “tricks” at his disposal. Also, the barbarian’s smaller number of tier 2 traits are a little better because most are rage powers, which add a ton of versatility between characters.

So when creating a monk/barbarian hybrid, the first question becomes whether you should lean in one direction or split the difference. This is more difficult than say a barbarian/fighter, since those two martial classes have a lot more in common.

Building Up a Hybrid

For the fury, I chose split the difference, but with a lean in the monk’s direction. This is because it gave more design space for interesting abilities combining the monk’s martial artistry with the barbarian’s rage. The final breakdown ended up being d8 HD, medium BAB, strong Fort and Will saves, 4+ Int skills, martial weapon proficiencies, and no armor or shield proficiencies. However, it took some tweaking to get those where I wanted them to be. Skills equate, saves and proficiencies are in the middle, but BAB is firmly on the monk’s side, and I chose d8 HD instead of d10 (in the middle). Some of this was a stylistic choice, but other aspects were influenced by the class features I wanted to include.

Thinking about it terms of a comparison to the base classes, for the monk we are a little less powerful but even out (slightly worse saves, slightly better proficiencies) and for the barbarian we are significantly less powerful (worse HD, worse BAB, better saves, and worse proficiencies).

The first thing I did was decide on the big ability for the class. I wanted a hybridization of rage and flurry of blows. The thematic element being that the fury surrenders herself to passion, giving her single-minded ferocity in battle backed by training-based muscle memory. This is a pretty common trope, with martial artists finding questionable strength in dark emotions like fear, anger, or a drive for vengeance.

Called “focused rage”, the new hybrid ability operates like a barbarian’s rage, but while raging the fury gains the benefits of flurry of blows (including additional attacks). By my rules of thumb, this ends up being better than the tier 1 rage but can just be treated as a both a tier 1 and tier 2 ability. Since rage powers so beautifully complement rage, I’d love to include them in the class as well, giving it a ton of already existing versatility to draw from.

With the big decisions made, it comes down to figuring out what remaining tier 2 and 3 abilities from both classes should be kept. Since we’re incorporating a big tier 1 barbarian ability plus 10 or less rage powers, it makes more sense to leave most of the other barbarian tier 2 and 3 abilities alone. This is especially true since monk has so many more potential choices to incorporate or reflect. Looking carefully through monk, I select the following to keep.

  • Flurry of blows is nominally still a part of the build even if it is factored into rage, so counts in as a tier 2.

  • I’d like to keep ki pool, with some sort of “dark” rage-filled ki equivalent.

  • Unarmed strike is a real obvious cornerstone tier 2 ability to incorporate for any martial artist character.

  • A monk AC bonus ability is a must given a lack of armor proficiency, but Wisdom is a weird ability score to tie it to for the fury. Reflecting her passion driving her rather than her serenity, I chose to use Charisma instead.

  • Both classes possess faster movement, so they fury gains the monk’s fast movement ability.

  • Evasion and improved evasion are also decent choices, and so I added them in nominally.

  • That means I’m not going to include bonus feats, stunning fist, maneuver training, still mind, slow fall, wholeness of body, diamond body, abundant step, diamond soul, quivering palm, timeless body, tongue of the sun and moon, empty body, and perfect self.

My running total for class features and abilities = x2 tier 1, x11 tier 2, x1 tier 3. That puts me under both the monk and barbarian. So I’ve got plenty of design space for some cool new abilities focused on fueling rage with dark ki and sacrificing her health for temporary power.

At this point it is a great idea to plot out the full 1st-20th progression, with the abilities at each level filled in. This lets you target the dead levels for new abilities, or see if there are any additional base class abilities that might help flesh it out. Likewise, look for levels with relatively boring bumps or abilities. Looking at the fury’s current progression, I see I have openings at 5th, 7th, 13th, 15th, 17th, and 19th and write up new powers (purity of purpose, sacrifice of body, perfect purpose, throat strike, sustained by anger, and sacrifice of soul) to fill those in. Each is about a tier 2 ability, raising my total to x2 tier 1, x17 tier 2, and x1 tier 3.

I’ve got some remaining room for a few decent tier 2 or 3 abilities. Looking back at barbarian and monk, I pick out maneuver training and damage reduction as good fits. Now I’ve got a few less low-power abilities than a monk, but my abilities are more focused, and rage powers add greater versatility. I’ve got less brute power than a barbarian, but a lot more options in combat.

Playtesting

The above process is important, but playtesting is vital. One of the problems frequently run into is that there is sometimes not sufficient time for proper vetting of new material. If this is the case, I find it invaluable to step away from what I am doing, and come back to it with fresh eyes, even if only a few days later. It can also be useful to build characters for comparison, and to see how broken you can potentially make your new class.

A good example of something that popped up was the evasion and improved evasion abilities. While fitting for a monk, the fury has a weak Reflex save. Not only does this lower the utility of evasion, but severely increases the utility of improved evasion. So, those abilities got dropped for uncanny dodge and improved uncanny dodge which fit a similar thematic niche.

Looking at the fury in this respect also revealed a few additional flaws. The biggest is that what seemed like a cool idea at the core of the class (rage + flurry) might be too broken in practice. The fury’s damage output as initially written is going to be superior to either base class. With boosts to Strength, unarmed damage, and additional attacks, the only way for a barbarian to match it is with a lot of two-weapon fighting with a giant sword.

How to fix this? Well, the first step is to remove the flurry of blows ability allowing a monk to add his full Strength bonus to the extra attacks. Instead, the fury just adds &frac;12; her Strength modifier on secondary attacks. Additionally, tying the flurry of blows improvements (Improved Two-Weapon Fighting and Greater Two-Weapon Fighting) to greater focused rage and mighty focused rage slows down the additional attack progression. This helps subtly highlight a difference between monks and furies, with monks having superior training even if the fury is stronger. The last thing to do is to dial back the morale bonuses on focused fury from the barbarian’s rage (+2 base instead of +4). This way, while the fury might gain additional attacks, the barbarian is still king of raging.

Thanks for reading! Be sure to check out the Renegade if the idea of a wise-cracking social gunslinger/rogue sounds as cool to you as it did to me, and watch out next week for the Fury!

-Stephen Rowe (Pestilence)

 
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