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Old Screeds

Splat Books Are Bad [3 Feb 12] With many examples from the PF APG.

I love Third Edition D&D so much! If I ever get divorced from my wife, I am totally marrying Third Edition D&D. I love the modularity of it. I love the game balance of it. I love the way you can customize characters with it. I love its philosophy of game design, elegance, and especially that it is practically open source, with the d20 System and Open Game License.

Moreover, Fourth Edition D&D was so clearly an inferior product, that I was never tempted to even try it. I talked a little bit about that in a screed in 2008.

Note that I am talking about my beloved Core 3.5 Rules, here. The game was not helped by the plethora of splat books that followed the core books. You see, a gaming company makes its money by selling game rules. So after everyone has bought the Core Rules, what are game publishers to do? Book revenue is how publishers put food on the table and feed their little gamers-in-training. Publishers create settings, modules, and books of rules, which can be bolted on to the Core Rules. Moreover, publishers end up serving a demographic of gamers who are willing to try out new rules and pay money for rules books. Which is to say, splat books.

The problem is that splat books are churned out (it seems to me when I read them) by writers who are either sloppy or careless or simply fail to grasp the many ways different rules can interact. And as more and more splat books emerge, it becomes harder and harder to ensure that an odd rule from source A will not interact with an odd rule from source B to create some abomination of game imbalance. But rest assured – the gamers who buy and read these books, and who discuss them on message board fora, have found all those combinations. Case in point: the infamous Pun-Pun, a fifth level kobold with the powers of a god.

And this leads to a general rule that has pretty much never steered me wrong:

You give me a splat book, and I'll give you broken rules.

But what to make of the entire Pathfinder game? It has been aptly described as D&D 3.75. Is it a splat book to be discarded, or a useful and valid iteration of Third Edition in its own right? Here’s my opinion, based on several years of Pathfinder play and development.

Core Rules Pathfinder is a decent successor to D&D 3.5. It suffers from power inflation, but the inflationary elements are very well balanced among races, classes and other options. It includes several clear points of improvement:

  • It does a better job with grapples, trips and special attacks.
  • Every class offers something interesting and new at every level.
  • It fills in some of the gaps in the game, where options were lacking: New domains, sorcerer bloodlines, wizard schools and arcane bonded objects, etc etc.
  • It rewards sticking with one class through 20 levels of play.
This last point is a mixed blessing. Discouraging multiclassing is bad because it discourages player choice and creativity. But it encourages balanced play by offering less to the power gamers and minimaxers out there. Now, the horrible D&D 4.0 actively discourages multiclassing. The concept barely exists in its traditional sense. So while Pathfinder may encourage single-classing, it still offers very rich choices for multiclassers, and that's all to the good.

But that’s for the Core Rules. What about the Pathfinder splat books, like the Advanced Players Guide? Want a short answer? You give me a Splat Book, and I'll give you broken rules. Long answer? I'll be writing more screeds that look at the good, the bad, and the ugly in the APG and the Advanced Races Guide, in particular. Check out the following links to read my take on the worst abuses of the Pathfinder APG.

Splat Books Are Insulting And Offensive: The PF Halfling and the Holy Vindicator PrC

Splat Books Are Overpowered And Unbalanced: The APG Witch, Oracle, and Summoner

Splat Books Are Badly Written: The Battle Herald's Voice of Authority ability and the Clobbering Strike feat

So what is the solution? How can you put these splat books to actual use? Well, FIRST, one path is to adopt a particularly useful splat book and simply patch the things that really needed patching. The problem with that philosophy is that players -- sometimes through cleverness, sometimes through bad luck -- keep stumbling on things that need patching. Eventually the patches may become unwieldy. Sometimes the patches defeat the tactics and plans of players who thought they could rely on the rules as written. One hopes that the annoyance of patching broken rules will be outweighed by the advantages that the splat book rules offer.

In any case, you would be well served by keeping this central guiding philosophy in mind: Splat books are always always always suspect!

For example, under the Core Rules, you simply cannot have a flying animal companion that you can ride. Under the extended list, you can have a baby roc that starts Medium (a great mount for a small druid) and grows to large later on. So at level 1, a gnome or halfling druid with a roc companion gets to fly around at will. No, sorry, bzzzt! Bad answer! Jeezum Crow and Piso Mojado! That needs a patch! No medium or large flying animal companions are allowed in my games.

For another example, one might rule that a Lore Oracle can't use his focused trance to gain a +20 on Spellcraft rolls to create magic items.

So adding a house rule for everything that you find that is broken is an option. But adding house rule upon house rule is also cumbersome. And if you miss one, you have to retroactively add more house rules ... ugh. What other options are there?

SECOND, another answer is to simply say NO to splat book expansion -- because as a general rule, is is a matter of indisputable fact that all Splat Books Are Broken. It really is just that simple. Sadly, there are some good bits in those splat books, and a jaded player deserves to be able to explore new options that are balanced and fun, but oh well. There's too much bathwater and too little baby in there: throw it all out.

Or THIRD, you can allow the very selective use of a just one or two rules from a splat book, on the condition that they may be revoked or patched if they prove too unbalancing in play.

Very minimal house rules OR splat books OR balanced game. You can pick any two, but you can't have all three. If your goal is to keep things simple with as few house rules as possible, and you also have the goal of a balanced game, then you simply cannot allow unmodified splat books in toto. Because they are always broken!

This screed was posted here on 22 August 2013, but it was mostly written as a message board post on 3 Feb 2012 and revised in April and May 2013.

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