Monday, April 24, 2017

Don't Use Character Build Guides If You Aren't Familiar With The System

Thanks to the Internet, it's now possible for players to do more research than ever before when it comes to how to build their ideal character concept. We can talk with other players on social media, chat in forums, ask questions in discussion groups, and get references for everything we ever wanted to know. Additionally, we also have players writing their own guides for how to execute ideal character concepts. If you've ever been to my Character Conversions page, you've seen all 48 of the guides I've written for everything from Game of Thrones, to The Avengers, D.C. comics characters, and badasses of history.

Like this crazy son of a bitch right here!
A fun fact about all those conversions... my Character Conversions page is the most visited page on this blog, closely followed by my Crunch page. That makes sense, though. Since I primarily write about Pathfinder, and Pathfinder is a rules-dense game, readers are turning to me to point out the sections of interest. The bulk of my regular traffic comes from gamers who are looking for a guide to machete their way through this jungle of text, rule books, and minutiae.

That's fine, from where I'm sitting. I like knowing that my fellow gamers trust me enough to look at my thoughts, share my guides, and come back week after week to see what I'm doing now.

With that said, there is something I feel needs to be addressed. A caveat to all the content on my blog, in my guides, and on the Internet from other creators. There is nothing wrong with a player reading through these guides to find information that will help them build better characters. There's nothing wrong with just building the character as it's laid out in a guide. However, if you don't understand the mechanics in the post you're reading, do not bring that character to your table.

If you can't drive stick, don't get behind the wheel.

There Is No Shortcut to System Mastery

I will reiterate, a build guide can help you find your way to executing the character concept you want. But you need a certain amount of system mastery (which is a fancy term for saying you understand the rules, and you can apply them to your character) in order to use a guide properly.

I sense an example would help, here?
Let's take a basic example. Say you're talking with Dave, who's never played Pathfinder before. Dave wants to play a fighter, but he doesn't want to be one of those big, armored tanks. He wants to be a human who is light on his feet, and whose speed is what makes him deadly. You, as an experienced player, can tell him that he should take Weapon Finesse, Weapon Focus, and Slashing Grace as his three 1st-level feats, then he'll want to take Piranha Strike as his 2nd-level feat. Now imagine Dave nodding, and writing all that down.

The problem is that he has no idea what any of that means. Sure he can look those feats up, and read their wording, but if he's never played the game before, and he has no experience to draw on, he might not know what this text really means. Worse, he might get the wrong idea of how it works, which means he'll then have to unlearn his first impression. If you don't walk him through it, and explain it to him, there's a chance he's just going to be confused.

Now imagine that same scenario, but Dave is instead reading a guide that plots out a character from level 1 to level 15. He isn't getting the experience of building a character himself; he's just writing down what someone else told him without any real understanding of what these words mean, or how they go together. That's going to lead to problems sooner, rather than later.

We Can Be Wrong, Too

Here's a thing that a lot of players sometimes forget... we aren't special. Those of us who create content are players, just like you. Some of us are more experienced, or we spend more time reading the books, but we're just players. Sometimes we misread something, or we forget rules, or we just don't find out about an errata that has said no, that combination is not legal. We are only human.

If you are not familiar with the game system you're playing, though, you won't catch our mistakes. You may not see, for example, that a character with Slashing Grace can't also use his secondary natural attacks in the same round he benefited from that feat. We might have missed that a particular sorcerer bloodline power is listed as an extraordinary ability, instead of a spell-like ability, meaning it can't be modified with feats like Quicken Spell-Like Ability.

Our advice isn't perfect. Sometimes it's downright wrong. But if you aren't familiar enough with the system in question, then you won't know. And even if we do get everything right, you need to be able to take the advice we've given you, and properly apply it. For example, say that Dave decided he was going to play that greatsword-wielding tank after all. So he takes Power Attack, and Furious Focus. Problem is that when he hits level 6, and gets two attacks, he forgets that Furious Focus only removes the negative from the 1st attack he makes. It doesn't stop the Power Attack penalty from affecting his second attack, his attacks of opportunity, etc.

It's A Tool, Not A Cheat

When I was in high school, I used to tutor younger kids for pocket money. A problem I ran into time and time again was that my students just wanted me to give them the answers. The problem is that's like paying a personal trainer to work out for you. Sure, the work is still being done, but it isn't actually benefiting you.

I'm trying to teach you how to fight, because I'm not at your table to throw the punches for you.
So, if you want to use guides you find on the Internet for inspiration, go right ahead! I will never say no to more traffic on my Character Conversions or Crunch pages. However, what I recommend is that you take what I (or anyone else) has to say with a grain of salt. Look up the rules we're quoting, the feats we're suggesting, and the class abilities we're talking about. Make sure you can take those building blocks, and construct them into a character you understand how to play. Talk to your DM, and make sure they know what you're bringing to their table, and that you can explain to them how your abilities work.

If you can do that, then you're probably good to go.

We all make mistakes. If you're a newer player, or you just aren't familiar with a certain class of rules, don't just take a guide you found online at face value. Break it down, check the math, and make sure you can actually drive it once you bring it to the table.

Because we might have given you a Porsche, but if you don't have the system mastery, all you're going to do is grind gears on your way out of the parking lot. That's not what you want.

That's all for this Moon Pope Monday post. Hopefully some folks found in helpful, or at least insightful. We were all new once, so don't be afraid of a little book diving. It does you good. To keep up to date on my latest posts, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to help support me and my blog, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page today. Pledge $1 a month, and you'll get both my everlasting gratitude, and some sweet swag, too!


  1. Advice I can appreciate. Always a risk when I ask for build advice on ESO, since useless flame wars can start up, with no explanation of the trade-offs between ability or build A and B.

  2. Character Build Guides are basically technical writing, and as such, they would really benefit from statements of scope and audience. Who is the guide written for? What is covered and not covered? Many GMs recommend guides for new players to get them up to speed, and there's a crying need for guides for newer players.