Saturday, May 9, 2015

How to Shut Down Spellcasters in Pathfinder

Magic is perhaps the most potent force in fantasy roleplaying games. From the sheer destructive power of evokers, to the mind-twisting subtlety of enchanters, to the holy wrath of clerics and oracles, there's a reason your final boss often ends up being a human bursting at the seams with spells. After all, what could be more deadly?

What indeed?
Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of parties have met their ends when facing masters of arts mystical and arcane. If you want to make sure your party isn't numbered among them, here are some tactics you should keep in mind the next time you have to beard a necromancer in his lair.

Alchemical Aids

I mentioned a lot of stuff that could save your butt in my guide The Best Alchemical Items For Your Pathfinder Party, and in between the swarm-killers and troll styptics I pointed out several items that can make a big difference when it comes time to throw down with magic users.

Top of the list are tanglefoot bags. These sacks of goo don't do any damage, but their actual effects can be game changers. Targets who are hit with a tanglefoot bag (a touch attack) have to make a DC 15 reflex save or be stuck to the ground. Even if they make the save they're still entangled for 2d4 rounds, which means a -2 on all attack rolls, a -4 on dexterity, and casting any spell requires a concentration check. That can have disastrous results for any magic user. You should also keep Spider Sac in mind. While the negatives aren't as bad, it acts like a lasso. In short, if your target wants to get away then he or she has to take a standard action to break the goo rope you've just stuck to them. A great method to keep magic users from running away.

Another great monkey wrench to throw into a caster's plans is a thunderstone. Again, these items do no actual damage, but if those in the area fail a DC 15 fortitude save then they're deafened for an hour. A deaf spell caster has a 20 percent chance to blow any spell with verbal components, which can be a life saver for parties who want to strip an enemy's capabilities. This strategy works best with wizards and sorcerers due to their low fortitude saves, and traditionally low Constitution scores.

There's one other bottled solution that can be a serious aid for you; alchemist's fire. While typically used against swarms, alchemist fire provides 1 round of recurring damage. We all know that casters who are injured during a spell must make a concentration check equal to 10 + damage taken + spell level in order to not lose the spell. The same is true for recurring damage, except the check is 10 + 1/2 damage taken + spell level. It doesn't do you any good if the caster is immune to fire, but if he isn't then you might cost him a spell in addition to doing a greatsword worth of fire damage.

Fighting Dirty

There are a lot of ways you can trip up a spell caster. Perhaps the most basic is to ready an action until you see the magic user putting a spell together, and then to attack (this usually requires some kind of ranged weapon). As we all know getting hit during a spell requires a concentration check that adds the damage you do into the DC. That's going to be a big problem for most casters, unless you do minimal damage or they have some truly huge bonuses on concentration checks.

The dirty trick combat maneuver is often overlooked by players. After all, what does it do but allow you to give someone a handful of minor status effects lasting between one round and a few rounds?

Ow! Ugh... all right, which of you is hurt? I can't see shit...
While it requires you to get into melee with a spell caster (something that rarely lasts for more than a round or so, if you can manage it) you can do a lot of damage to that enemy's strategy in a short time. Boxed ears or spit in the eyes can make the caster deaf and blind respectively, and if you have the Dirty Trick Master feat (not to be confused with my post A Pathfinder Build For A Dirty Trick Master) you can make a spell caster sickened and then nauseated, which means he or she can't cast spells at all for that round.

Even if you opt not to use the dirty trick combat maneuver, you still have grappling available. Spell casters tend not to have terribly high combat maneuver defense scores, which means grappling them should be pretty easy (assuming they haven't cast freedom of movement on themselves). A grappled spell caster has to make a concentration check to cast while grappled, and if a caster is pinned it's impossible to cast any spell with a somatic or material component. That can take away a magic user's options in a big hurry if they aren't prepared for it.

The disarm and steal combat maneuvers are another smart move, since you can use them to yank away a spell caster's holy symbol or material component pouch. Of course taking eschew materials or one of the many traits that gives you a tattooed holy symbol or a birthmark holy symbol will render such attempts less useful, they're still a solid bet if you can get close enough to rip out the spell caster's batteries, so to speak.

Additionally, if you're a fighter (or a class capable of taking feats as a fighter would be) the Disruptive feat (Core Rulebook 122) is something you should keep in mind. When you get to a certain level casting defensively becomes a formality in combat, but if you have Disruptive you add +4 to the DC the caster has to beat. Add in the Spellbreaker feat (Core Rulebook 134) and you get to smack any casters you threaten when they fail their checks.

It might also be a good idea to take feats like Step Up (Core Rulebook 135) so that when a caster (or anyone else) attempts to step away from you, that you get to follow. That way they still have to make the concentration check to cast, which can be an issue at low levels, or under adverse conditions (like a sword in your face).

It's also a good idea to keep a net or a lasso on hand. These cheap, common items allow you to render an enemy entangled, and if you have the lasso you can make it harder for them to get away. It's easy enough to break, but that's just one more thing your enemy will have to spend an action to do.

Lastly, monks and brawlers looking for their time to shine should put their Stunning Fist and Knockout features to use against spell casters. Since these abilities require a fortitude save, the chances of being able to hit an arcane caster's reset button is fair-to-middling. That can be a combat ender if the rest of the party can dog pile on the individual.

Fighting Fire With Fire

One of the most potent ways to shut down enemy spell casters is, of course, to bring your own. While it might sound like a nuclear deterrent sort of situation, there is a lot of strategy that goes into nullifying the threat posed by an enemy magic user.

Never underestimate the power of a bard.
The counterspell mechanic (Core Rulebook 207) is something we almost never use as players. It doesn't seem like a good economy of action, since you have to ready an action to counter a spell, and if the enemy caster uses Silent Spell, Still Spell, or does something other than cast such as use a magic item, your action was wasted. Even if the enemy does cast a spell there's still a lot of chance that goes into it. Do you have the exact spell prepared that your opponent is casting? Do you have dispel magic prepared, and can you beat your enemy's caster level? Do you have the right feats or class abilities (like Improved Counterspell, Varisian Tattoo, or the Counterspell Wizard School) which mean you're going to make a perfect foil?

Maybe you do, and maybe you don't. Still, if you are going to walk into a fight with a powerful spell caster it would behoove you to be able to both stop him from casting any new spells, as well as to dispel any buffs he already has cast on himself. If you want to go this route examine the Counterspell Wizard School, and the counterspell abilities you can take as an Arcanist.

Even if you are not a counterspell specialist you have options available. Silence, even if it's cast from a wand, can strip an enemy spellcaster of options and force him to move where you want him to move (in addition to protecting you from any sonic effects, or effects that require you to be able to hear the caster speak). All you have to do is cast it on an item or in space, rather than on the caster himself; items you're holding and points in space get no saving throw. Obscuring mist can make it impossible for an enemy spell caster to target you, but you can still target them if you have an item like a goz mask or fogcutter lenses, or the 9th level ability of the Boreal sorcerer that lets you see through mist and fog. I made this very recommendation in my Batman character build. Wall effects can give you some breathing room, or cut off your enemy's maneuverability, essentially letting you re-draw the map in your favor instead of your enemy's.

There are also spells like pilfering hand, which allow you to use disarm or steal at a distance. It's the same move mentioned for your martial classes, but you can do it safely from further away. It doesn't do you much good when you're facing creatures that have spell-like abilities, or the aforementioned tattooed clerics or sorcerers, but it's a handy strategy when that isn't the case.

I'm going to repeat it, because it bears repeating; do not overlook the importance of dispel magic. If you pump your caster level up it will become simple for you to grab whatever spells your foes are casting, or which are already in effect, and wrench them away like they'd never existed.

There Are No Guarantees

Given all of these different options it seems like spell casters would be no challenge for a properly prepared party. One or two rounds to render the caster de-buffed into the ground, a knock on the noggin from the monk, and the combat's over.

If only it were that easy.

Baleful Polymorph is always an option...
While good strategy is a big part of triumphing over an enemy spellcaster, it's important to remember that for every move you make there is a counter your enemy can make (or become). For example, spell casters that have tremorsense know where you are even while they're blind and deaf as long as you're touching the floor. Spells like true seeing, or arcane sight can pick you out of thin air, even if you'd otherwise be hidden or concealed. Undead casters like liches and vampires are immune to nearly anything that requires a fortitude save, and if a caster uses grease or freedom of movement then getting a grip on them becomes somewhere between difficult and impossible. If your enemy starts flying then it's impossible to get in melee with them unless you've got some method of getting yourself up to them.

That's why it's so important for you to have a big bag of tricks. If all you've got is one or two gimmicks then you're going to end up bringing a cestus to a gun fight. The more options you have available to you, the better your chances of being able to pull out a win even when things look grim.

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