Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Marking for Pathfinder

In theory, this should be a quick exercise for interest.

I've played a little Pathfinder. A quick summary review:

  • fine
  • basically 3.5e so far as I played it
  • the changes they've made seem pretty solid
  • like the changes made to distinguish wizards and sorcerers more, and give them flavour
  • goes some way to redressing the LWQW problem (but not far enough, I suspect)

A tangent!

So one of the things I keep noticing, especially with fantasy games, is that the wizard/nonwizard discrepancy is more than just power.

At the basic level, yes, many systems have an imbalance of power at just about every level: low-level spellcasters tend to suck, while later on they utterly eclipse their comrades in every conceivable sphere. Because spellcasting tends to work very differently from other activities, balancing the different subsystems seems to be an eternal problem - assuming people even want to 'solve' it, which is not necessarily the case.

The other aspect, though, is that there is often a huge discrepancy in how interesting or plain awesome characters are. Unfortunately, this discrepancy works in the same direction, partly because of an access-to-subsystem issue. Mundane characters can be very cool at fighting, slip silently through a roomful of guards, perform feats of acrobatics, smash through oaken doors, or suavely talk their way into the king's chamber. However, wizards can generally do a much wider range of things: they can summon demons, call down lightning, turn invisible, beguile and control enemies, hurl fire, conjure portals, repel monsters, breathe underwater, shapeshift, banish monsters, create or dispel illusions...

The thing is that there's only so many ways you can hit people with swords, and if you repeat the same tricks or descriptions they start to feel stale. The range of possibilities open to spellcasters is simply much larger. The difference is reinforced because generally speaking, wizards can have a bash at the kinds of things non-wizards can do (they have access to those subsystems), whereas nonwizards generally have no access to spellcasting, or in some cases can occasionally use magic items to call on those effects. The only major example I can think of is rogue trapfinding, which is sometimes restricted to rogues only, although of course this limit affects other mundane characters as well as spellcasters.

Shrug off attacksYY (magic)
Slay enemies in meléeYYY (magic)
Slay enemies at rangeYYY (magic)
Disarm foesY?
Trip, grab and inconvenience foesY?
Break chests, fences and barsYY (by magic)
Leap over chasms and scramble up ropesYY
Sneak past guardsYY (by magic)
Disable trapsY
Open locked doorsYY
Block enemy movementY
Control enemiesY
Create illusory distractionsY
Bypass magical wardsY
Conjure alliesY
Interact with objects at a distanceY
Restore the dead to lifeY
Heal the injuredY (some)
Sense and locate quest objects, enemies or magicY
Protect against fire, drowning, cold or gravityY
Change formY
Sense the thoughts of othersY

D&D 4E tackles the issue of power scaling, but can't overcome the interest factor - in fact in many ways, the power-based system just seems to highlight the discrepancy in interest, with spellcasters getting all kinds of exotic descriptions for their abilities, while everyone else gets some variation on 'you hit it with a sword'. I'm not sure there is any solution in a class-based system where only some characters have access to particular subsystems. I suppose you could have arcane talent massively hamper your physical capabilities, or else limit any mage to a small subset of abilities (though that would make the game tougher for everyone).


I had a passing thought that the marking mechanics used in D&D 4E did a reasonable job of giving the fighter a unique, flavourful and genuinely useful ability that isn't wildly unbalancing. The ability consists, in 4E mechanics, of several components (a bonus or two, a special ability and a power) but is fairly simple. In essence, it allows a fighter who has engaged a target to lock that opponent down, hampering their ability to attack others and restricting their movement, including their ability to retreat. As the fighter gains levels, they are more likely to successfully prevent a marked target from manoeuvring for advantage because they are better able to hit, and increasingly able to mark multiple enemies. Because they can mark a number of enemies at once, they can lock several targets into place.

It seems to me that it should be possible to translate this ability into Pathfinder, where it might add a bit more flavour to the Fighter, improve the still-somewhat-lacklustre abilities of the class (bonuses to weapon and armour are nice, but not especially exciting) but still refrain from overbalancing things. The rules are also basically usable in D&D 3.5, given the similarity of the two systems.


  • Pathfinder has iterative attacks rather than one power per round, so the "makes an attack that does not include you as a target" needs some adjustment.
  • I need to consider the hit point balance of the two games; it's possible that the damage dealt by a basic attack is trivial in D&D 4E but non-trivial in Pathfinder.
  • I need to compare the attack of opportunity rules for the two games, and make sure I'm not either adding a useless ability or making this too powerful.
  • 4E doesn't allow more than one mark on a target, largely (entirely?) for mechanical reasons. While marking is useful, a) I'm not convinced it's so powerful that the mechanics should override the logic that getting stuck between two people intent on killing you should be really bad news, when you can (for example) take ongoing damage from several spells simultaneously; and b) Pathfinder doesn't have the wide variety of marks and marklike abilities found in 4E, and so I think there's less complication likely.

Suggested rules

Marking (Ex)

Whenever a fighter attacks an enemy with a melée attack, regardless of whether the attack hits or misses, the target is marked until the end of the fighter's next turn. The fighter physically and psychologically impedes the target, blocking attacks and threatening to strike the moment their target is distracted. A fighter can have any number of marked opponents.

A mark lapses on the marked creature's turn if the fighter does not attack it during her own turn, or if the fighter is unable to take opportunity actions (or any actions).

While within the fighter's threatened range, a marked creature suffers a -2 attack roll penalty on all attacks that do not include the fighter as a target, as well as any Concentration rolls to cast a spell. The penalty increases by -1 at levels 4, 8, 12, 16 and 20.

Combat Obstruction (Ex)

From 3rd level, when the fighter hits with an attack of opportunity against a marked enemy, the target's movement ends immediately. The fighter does not have to invoke this ability, and can always choose to attack an enemy but allow them to continue moving.

Combat Challenge (Ex)

From 7th level, if a marked enemy makes an attack that does not include the fighter as a target, and has not yet attacked the fighter this round, the fighter can immediately make an attack of opportunity against them following the normal rules.

Combat Superiority (Ex)

From 11th level, when a marked enemy attempts to use a 5-foot step or withdraw action within the fighter's threatened area, she can make an attack of opportunity against them following the normal rules.

Combat Insight (Ex)

From 15th level, a fighter gains her Wisdom bonus as an insight bonus to attacks of opportunity and to her AC against opportunity attacks.

Combat Domination (Ex)

From 19th level, if a fighter misses with an opportunity attack against a marked target, it does not count towards the limit on opportunity attacks per round. In addition, the fighter cannot be flanked by a marked enemy. This defense denies a marked rogue the ability to sneak attack the fighter by flanking her, unless the attacker has at least four more rogue levels than the target has fighter levels.


So I did a quick number comparison by level. Early on, a 4E fighter has significantly more hit points and so inflicts proportionally little damage. As they gain levels, the Pathfinder fighter tends to gain more hit points per level and so edges ahead, until at high levels they are some way ahead (170hp versus 145hp, even without Con increases).

Let's assume a fighter with Constitution and Strength 16. For Pathfinder, she gets average 1d10 rolls of 5 & 6 and an automatic 10 for first level. For attacks, each has a compromise weapon of 1d10 with the expected per-level bonuses (about +1 per five levels). I'm ignoring Strength and Con boosts from levelling and gear because they should roughly cancel out. The table below doesn't show to 20th level because I'm lazy and it's a surprising amount of faff.

Level4E fighterMBA damageProportionPathfinder fighterOA damageProportion

In general, though, I don't think there's much to worry about, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the two scores are really very similar throughout, making only a percentage-point or two of difference between the effectiveness of an opportunity attack. Secondly, unlike the 4E fighter, my proposed Pathfinder version doesn't grant extra OAs until 7th level, at which point the two are basically even, especially in proportional terms. I've tried to split things up so that the early abilities are actually mostly useful to the fighter's allies, since at this stage fighters are relatively powerful as a class. It's only at 7th level that they are able to make attacks when they normally couldn't, and even this tends to benefit allies by punishing creatures for attacking them and drawing fire on the fighter. In fact, it's not until 11th level that the fighter gains anything that basically only benefits herself, allowing her to lock enemies into combat.

I also added a capstone ability at 19th level, partly just for symmetry. The OA retention is sort of nice because makes it harder for groups of enemies to outmanoeuvre her and reach her allies simply by running down her opportunity attacks. The flanking restriction plays into the whole idea of marking - you can't catch off guard a fighter who's marking you, because the whole point is they're focusing on you and controlling the flow of the combat. It shouldn't make a lot of difference at that level, given the size of bonuses likely to be in play, but just gives then a nice flavourful edge. Only rogues are seriously penalized by it, and it makes sense to me that a rogue facing off against a highly accomplished fighter is in trouble, because they're fighting on the fighter's terms rather than their own.

Oh, and unlike 4E, I decided the mark should scale somewhat with level, since the idea is to persuade enemies to attack the fighter by making it inconvenient to do anything else. I'm not 100% sure either way whether it's better or not. The main effect is likely to be on spellcasters.

I had to decide between "fighter can Challenge all attacks" and "retain 4E model", and went for the latter. This does mean that a creature can make a weak attack against the fighter before turning elsewhere. However, iterative attacks should still be taken in order (so the fighter gets the worst of it), and for multi-attack creatures it basically makes sense that they can hold off the fighter with their claw while they snap at the cleric, or whatever.

So there you go, hope it's interesting.

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