Monday, September 26, 2016

The REAL Reason Power Tiers Are A Useless Concept in Pathfinder

So, at this point I think we're all passingly familiar with the concept of power tiers. For those who aren't familiar, I'll break it down for you. The tiers go from 1 (considered the "most powerful" character classes), all the way down to tier 5 or 6. Those who believe this system is useful, either as DMs or as players, tend to put spellcasters near the top tier, with martial classes in the middle, and the bottom taken up with hard-to-classify ones like the monk.

However, in all the conversations and arguments I've seen regarding power tiers, I keep coming across the same, inherent problem with this classification system (aside from the fact that it's completely opinion based). The problem is that these tiers do not account for the sheer variety of options you can encounter in a Pathfinder campaign, either in character building, or in the threats you have to overcome.

Hear that? That's the sound of a thousand keyboards all chattering with rebuttals.
Now then, for those of you who are still here, I'm going to make a few points that will further explain why I think we should do away with this system in favor of more nuanced discourse.

Point #1: It Doesn't Factor in Number of Encounters

No one who has ever played a Pathfinder game would dispute that a fully-powered wizard or cleric is a force to reckon with. They tend to be big bosses for a reason. However, as anyone who has played a spellcaster knows, you are a big gun with a limited number of bullets. Sure, you may be able to completely destroy an encounter by yourself, but how many times a day can you do that? Once? Twice? What are you going to have left by the time you get to the third encounter, and you're down to cantrips and/or orisons?

Intimidating the raging barbarian is not a recommended tactic.
It is a fair statement to say that a wizard, through use of the right spells, can sneak around just as well, or better, than many rogues. However, the time limit on spells, combined with the limited uses you have of them per day, means that when it comes to a dungeon crawl, the guy who can roll reliably all day is the better choice for the job.

Put another way, sure, you can do amazing things with tier 1 characters. But how long can you keep it up for?

Point #2: Multiclassing

One of the biggest issues with the power tier system is that it seems to function on the belief that most characters will take levels of one class, and one class only. As soon as you start mixing and matching, it throws off all the assumptions. After all, if you're a wizard/fighter, then how do we decide where you belong? What if you're playing a barbarian/rogue? Does it matter how many levels of one class you take, and how many of the other? Do your feats come into it? Does your choice of spells?

The filing system is pretty easily screwed up.

Point #3: There Are Too Many Options

More powerful tiers are supposed to be inherently stronger than lower tiers when it comes to solving problems, whatever forms those problems take. That's a fine sentiment, but the sheer number of challenges means that different classes (or at least characters with different abilities) will be more useful in certain situations than others.

Everybody chill. I got this.
As a for instance, say your party is ambushed by assassins. The sorcerer's area of effect spells would obliterate swarms, or slow-moving enemies, but Improved Evasion means these targets walk through fireballs as if they weren't even there. If your enemies have protection from summoned monsters, then conjurers, druids, and summoners are going to find their usual tactics are nowhere near as effective.

This is true on a campaign level, in addition to on an encounter level. For example, an enchanter will find themselves at a serious disadvantage if they have to deal with mindless undead, plants, and constructs, instead of sentient creatures susceptible to their charms. A paladin who has to fight neutrally aligned mercenaries, vicious animals, or warriors simply trying to stay alive, may find that his smite is taken off the table, and that a number of his spells simply will not avail him in this fight. Rangers who go up against creatures that aren't on their favored enemy list will find they aren't nearly as effective as they are on their home turf, fighting their favored prey.

It isn't just challenges, though. Because there are a huge number of options players can pursue when it comes to their strategies.

For example, the rogue is on a lower tier than the wizard. But a rogue skilled in the use magic device skill, and who is willing to collect and utilize the proper resources, will find that this portable magic is quite useful. A fighter with the Eldritch Heritage feats manifests certain sorcerer powers, and those can often provide a character with a wider range of options and powers during a game. Even the much-maligned monk can often use their supernatural abilities to succeed in situations where traditional sorceries will fail.

Who Gets To Decide What's "Powerful"?

The major problem, when we get down to it, is who gets to say what is and isn't powerful?

For example, the ability to cast a 9th level spell is certainly impressive. But if you have a wizard trying to target someone who's hiding in plain sight, how do they find them? Do you cast hoping to hit the right area the target is in? Alternatively, you may have the ability to cleave an opponent in twain with a single swing of your sword, but what do you do if they're in a tree, or flying in the air? You may be the deadliest pistolero in the world, but what do you do if you need to cross the desert?

Bring a wand of Create Water, perhaps?
Too often, as players, we take it upon ourselves to decide that certain powers, and certain abilities, are inherently more valuable to a game than others. However, if we're going to have a, "my favorite class can beat up your favorite class," argument, then we need to set some serious parameters. For example, what is the situation that's being dealt with? What sort of campaign are we talking about? Are we talking pure class abilities only, or are we bringing gear into the discussion as well? Feat choice? Spell selection? Are we allowing only the core books, or anything from Paizo?

For example, it's perfectly acceptable to say that, "in an ambush situation, a diviner is going to be able to act more quickly than any other base class." That's true. But it's situation-specific, and this enables us to make statements that are actually valid. Simply stating, "X class is more powerful than Y class," adds nothing to the conversation, because we have no context. What are they trying to accomplish? Are we talking about damage output? Survivability? Who can discover more about plot-relevant clues? And is this a once-a-day trick that we can do with a minute or two of prep time, or is this something you can do waking up naked in the middle of the night?

That's it for this week's Moon Pope Monday post. Hopefully I managed to make a case that we can all talk about, and which will help us move away from massive generalities into more nuanced, useful discussions. If you'd like to help support Improved Initiative, then stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to toss a little bread in my jar. If you give at least $1 a month, there's even some swag in it for you! Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter yet, why not start now?


  1. The tiers are based on versatility.


    1. Versatility, then would equate to "Power".
      Which is again, more of an opinion.
      In many circumstances, a Monk could be more "versatile" than the Wizard.

    2. Negative. Versatility does not equate to power. Power is "more useful in certain situations than others." Versatility is "useful in MORE situations than others." They are very different concepts.

    3. Versatility is more of a fact than an opinion.

      Fact: Wizards can do more different things than fighters. Period.

      Because resting and swapping spells allows wizards to do what fighters can do, or things impossible for fighters, or things fighters could only do with certain items, wizards are more powerful.

      There's a lot of opinion that goes into tier lists, especially for edge cases. However it's wrong to say they are entirely opinion based when we have a game underneath everything that relies of finite and articulated class features and number crunching.

      Class tier lists tend to be more often than not correct, because some classes can just do more than others.

  2. The kineticist class has the ultimate in versatility/survivablility/out-put and can do it all day everyday at the drop of a hat

  3. The Tier system was originally written for 3.5, where many spells were actively more broken. It is not written to accommodate multiclassing or extreme/poor levels of optimization, instead focusing on what abilities the class has innately available to them. Full casters are given the Tier 1 spot because of spells like Planar Binding and Gate.

    In addition, the defining quality of Tiers 1 and 2 is more than just flexibility. It is having the power to shatter common plot points and even campaigns. A Wizard for example could Dominate an enemy and discover instantly where the villains lair was, while the rogue would need to defeat the enemy in combat, capture him alive, and interrogate him with a skill check to get the same information, with a chance of it being inaccurate. This same Wizard could then Teleport his party across the continent to the inner sanctum of the villains lair, bypassing random encounters and depending on his divinations, even the dungeon crawling altogether.

    As a final note, the tier system was never written with damage output in mind. When it was written it was possible for a straight classed barbarian to do damage in the thousands, but it was placed in the low tier due to few skill points and only one real class based problem solving ability. Hit it with a stick.

    I hope that my messy argument here has made an impact on your thought process in this regard, and maybe shed some light on what you may not have previously known.

    Ps. My tier 4/5 Kineticist shattered an entire campaign just due to how I played it. That's why the tier system is just a general guideline and not a hard and fast rule.

  4. But that's wrong. That's not how the Pathfinder tier list works.

    Certain classes are better designed than others, some classes are poorly designed. Some classes are higher tier than others.

    Being on a higher tier doesn't mean the class is powerful. It means it's more powerful in more situations.

    Just about all of your examples are based on combat situations. Being absolutely amazing at combat and nothing else is still a Tier 4.

    If I needed to attack the castle, a Fighter could do it, but a Wizard could do it better.
    If I need to investigate and spy on the castle, a Rogue could do it, but a Wizard could do it much better.
    If I need to plan an attack on the castle and prepare supplies and equipment, well, a Wizard has many options and is the best at it.
    If I need to build a castle, the Wizard can do that.
    If I need to talk to and get information from the people in the castle, the Wizard has a lot of tools for that.
    If I need to travel to another planet, the Wizard can do that.
    If I need to travel to another dimension, the Wizard can do that.
    If I need to rescue my girlfriend from the afterlife, the Wizard can do that.

    Tier 1s are the best at anything, with no particular build.
    Tier 2s can be the best at anything, but only best at some things depending on their build.
    Tier 3s are amazing at one thing while still pretty good at other things, or just good at everything.
    Tier 4s can be amazing at one thing and useful for nothing else, or just okay at everything.
    Tier 5s are good at one thing, while useless in everything else, or bad at everything.
    Tier 6s are bad at everything, not even great at their own area.

    Yeah, you can be a very well optimized Tier 4 class, and have a lot of fun and be better than everyone else in the party, but you're still a Tier 4 class with a power ceiling.

    1. No. A wizard who is specifically created to be a master spy may do better than a rogue created for the same purpose, but said wizard cannot also be a castle blaster and vice versa. Extremely few wizards are designed to build castles. 2. I disagree about castle blasting - a wizard designed for for that purpose is not necessarily better than a fighter based on Point #1. 3. Every argument in favor of the Tier system assumes that spellcasters have access to high level spells and infinite resources. 4. No a wizard cannot rescue your girlfriend - wizards don't know what girlfriends are.

    2. Late on the draw here, but a single Wizard can absolutely be all those things.

      They can learn 2 spells from each level before any WBL/Downtime to purchase more is accounted for, which is significantly more class features than the Fighter has feats and features alike.

      More spells, especially of low level, cost a lot less than the golf bag of weapons a Fighter will want to deal with varied enemies and types of DR. They can even get it with time spent personally researching if no civilized pit stops are available, something that can't be said about the Fighter's need to pick up a +1 Cold Iron Morning Star to deal with particularly dickish amounts of DR. That's not counting Clerics and Druids, who have full spell list access at all times.

      At low levels, Wizards are limited by how many they can conceivably know and spell slots, but even by mid-level they're pretty well stocked on that magic ammo. Remember that it's advised that characters face 4 encounters in an adventuring day; when the Wizard can take out half the fight with one or two spells, it's not long before they've got enough to be covered and still have utility spells on hand.

      Count even a day of downtime, the Wizard can prep Augury and other Divination spells (Scrying, etc) to spy and determine what they'll need to prep for the next day. Knowledge checks can tell them what weaknesses to exploit, and what immunities they'll need to avoid.

      My Witch has defeated CR 10-11 challenges with a spell she learned at 7th level (Confusion used on a group of low-Will Save targets is an ugly, ugly sight). Glitterdust on the same group would've been similarly crippling, a spell learned at 3rd level.

      At 10th level she could toss 5 Confusions or equivalent powered spells (it's good to vary up stuff that targets Reflex, Will, Fort, AC, etc) if she dedicated her 5th level spell slots to it, she could conceivably end or severely hamstring 5 encounters a day before bonus spells from her high Int is accounted for.

      Counting Glitterdust and equivalents (Web and even Grease are good for Reflex save-targeting at that same level), she'd have over a dozen shots to spend of varying types, without even touching her 0th, 1st, and 3rd level spell slots, which can be used for things outside of combat. This goes for the Wizard and all other full casters.

      If that's not enough, a Wizard can spend that same WBL everyone else gets to get the same type of extra gear and gizmos the other characters can to cover gaps, and Wizards come with the built in option to turn that WBL into scrolls for emergency use- such as needing a Break Enchantment right now instead of needing to spend spell slots on it (presumably this is one of the reasons magic item crafting feats aren't allowed in Society Play).

      Those feats even mean the Wizard can craft magic items and stretch that gold coin twice as far, time permitting; something not available to martials barring some heavier feat investment to circumvent the caster level prerequisite. They can even obtain easier access to those items; Wands are extremely useful, but other characters need to invest heavily into Use Magic Device to make use of it reliably. A caster can activate a wand with a spell on their list without needing a check. 50 casts of a 1st level utility spell they can toss out in as long or short a stretch of time for a third of the cost of the average +1 weapon.

      Now, martial classes can do these things, but the Wizards get an explicit 'push this button' ability where the others have to finagle, role play, and otherwise improvise; the options and abilities Wizards have are baked into the class explicitly.

      They also spend a lot less of their secondary resources to get the ball rolling; a Rogue spends money and skill points to get their Disable Device check high enough to tackle DC 40 locks reliably, but a Wizard just uses Knock. Or Shatter, if noise isn't an issue. And if it's Arcane Lock'd, the Rogue won't be doing anything no matter how high they roll.

    3. (Ran out of space)

      As for assuming high level spell slots, well, no. Color Spray, Sleep, Cause Fear, Grease, and Entangle are 1st level spells that full casters can end encounters with, or at least do their fair share with. Glitterdust, Blindness/Deafness, and Web are 2nd level spells.

      That's just combat-related stuff. Prestidigitation has hundreds of potential applications but is only a cantrip. Create Water is 0th, Goodberry (admittedly limited in classes that know it) 1st, Endure Elements 1st, Rope Trick 2nd; pretty much removes most of the survival challenges and mundane environment dangers.

      Mount (1st level) provides low level travel and can be used to trigger traps from a safe distance. Speak Language (1st level) removes all language barriers. And so on, and so on. A Wizard doesn't take long to reach the point they can prep enough spells to cover multiple purposes.

      This is without touching skill points, feats (Heighten Spell to keep the DCs current means that set of 2nd level spells can cover each Save and circumvent most common immunities for the rest of your career, and you can get that as a bonus feat from the Wizard class), traits, or equipment.

      A Wizard can pick up a Pearl of Power that lets her re-use a spent 1st level spell for only 1000gp. At 10th level, she could have a dozen without cutting into her funds for important upgrades like Int-boosting items. That lets her prep a variety of utility spells and save her higher level slots for combat, or more specialized tools.

      Then there's stuff Wizards or Clerics can do easy that takes martials feats, more substantial daily resources, etc, if they can even do it innately. Flight, teleportation, curing diseases and ability drain, etc. Monks can do teleportation, Paladins cure diseases, but casters do it better and for only a spell slot.

      Essentially, full casters can fill more roles than any other single class, can do it better than some other classes that have it as their 'thing', and can do multiple roles at a time, even changing it day by day.

      All without having to really build towards a specific thing like the martial equivalents do; there's a reason why most full casters stay in their own class or prestiege classes that progress their casting over jumping between them to cherry pick.