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Ontario Pathfinder Society | 5-foot Theatre: Best-in-Class Performance
5-foot Theatre: Best-in-Class Performance

5-foot Theatre: Best-in-Class Performance

“When we lose our myths we lose our place in the universe.”
Madeleine L’Engle

Nothing holds more potential for a character than Class. Glance at the advancement table for an NPC class and consider a “twins experiment”. If you had two characters with the same race and ability scores, it wouldn’t take long for a Warrior  to be outstripped by a Fighter. When it comes to sheer power, Class is king –  but hold on, put down your dice and pencil for a second! More than merely a list of features, Class is a gleaming archway to the world of legend – a powerful tool for fixing flesh to dreams.


The backward Telescope

Wizards, warriors, knights, and bards have permeated culture since the first days of storytelling. As archetypal figures of human aspiration, they serve as the foundation for countless works of art and literature. A role-playing Class is designed to capture the essence of these legends. Their purpose: to create a framework for a player’s imagination to build on. When we perceive Class as merely a way to access new powers through leveling-up, we’re missing the essential point about why Classes were created in the first place.

Role-playing a Class is like looking into the night sky – an attempt to see something beautiful and cosmic. It is a wish to capture in our mind’s eye, if only for a moment, something glorious and otherworldly. When done well, role-playing a Class is like looking through a telescope, allowing players to observe the heavens more closely. Too often, players approach Class as advancement tables and ignore the thematic expressions at their root. In so doing, players unwittingly turn the telescope around and look through it backward – giving themselves a distorted sense of the sky’s appearance, and leaving them wondering why their vision isn’t what they expected it to be.


A night at the opera or a trip to the bank?

Class is an attempt to approximate an archetypal theme. Class features then, are numerical representations of ideas designed to provide an opportunity to come into contact an underlying myth. When considering these ideas, a player might profitably imagine themselves as an awestruck child backstage at a theatre surrounded by costumes, masks, and props. Too often when considering Class, we see ourselves as a middle-aged accountants checking our stock-portfolios and considering the potential for long-term growth. When we’re listening to our inner bean-counter rather than our inner-child, it might be an indication we need to shake things up!


Dive in!

Attempting to explore the role-playing potential for every Class in Pathfinder is beyond the scope of a single column, but applying the tools of the imagination to one Class might create a template for your own exploration of Class (and their many amazing archetypes). With this in mind, let’s consider the Sorcerer.

On paper, there’s not much too this Class.

  • The Sorcerer is a Charisma-based spell caster.
  • The Sorcerer has a different relationship with magic than a Wizard does.
  • The Sorcerer has additional powers based on Bloodline.


When summarized in such mundane terms even a class as evocative as the Sorcerer loses its visceral appeal. Indeed, the moon in the heavens looks awfully small.


Turn the telescope around!

So let’s flip things over and look at the role-playing theme hidden within the Sorcerer’s class features:

  •  A force of personality: The Sorcerer is a Charisma-based class. What does that mean? From a bean-counting perspective, it simply means her Charisma stat should be high in order to cast potent spells more often. From a role-playing perspective, being Charisma-based means something more. Her powers are rooted in her personality and in her ability to influence the magical world and its denizens. It means she is connected to the world in a way others can’t imagine – allowing her to unleash arcane energies coursing through world since its creation. It means her spells find their source in her emotional, psychological and physical identity.


  •  Relation to other classes: Since the Sorcerer inherits her bloodline, is she jealous that Wizards have the luxury of choosing magic as their way of life? Alternatively, does she see the Wizard’s reliance on scholarship a sign of inferiority – as something false and impure rooted in hubris? Are Wizards merely children trying to control a force they can never fully grasp, no matter how long their pour over their dusty, old tomes? What about other classes? Does the Sorcerer feel a certain kinship with Oracles because of the similar nature of their abilities? Are Sorcerers insulted by the very existence of Oracles because they make Sorcerers less unique? Does the Sorcerer consider all divine magic to be wholly inferior – a sort of hedge-magic that will at best be a quaint approximation of the real power only an arcane caster can ever fully grasp?


  • Bloodlines: From a crunch perspective, the Sorcerer gains a number of abilities from her Bloodline in exchange for not being able to cast the same way a Wizard can. Statistically, this means the class is balanced. It’s a trade-off. This is true enough but it’s hardly inspiring. From a thematic perspective, Bloodlines are about something inherent to the character’s physical and psychological composition. Unlike other Classes, the Sorcerer can’t simply choose not to be who she is. Sorcery is in her blood. How these powers manifest and how she responds to them an invitation to deeper role-play. A Bloodline begs a multitude of questions: how was her family-line imbued with magic? Was it through a forbidden love, through some environmental influence, or is its origin unknown? More importantly, how does the character feel about her Bloodline? Does she see it as a badge of honour or as something to be ashamed of? How does the Sorcerer’s alignment compliment (or conflict with) her bloodline? Is she a Lawful Good character burdened with heritage from the Undead? How does she attempt to reconcile herself to this twist of fate?


Character Advancement

As the Sorcerer advances in level such questions will need to be asked (and answered) anew. For example, some Bloodlines manifest themselves physically as she progresses in level. How does this physical transformation impact the Sorcerer’s self-identity? How does she feel when she’s around other members of her race who seem so normal compared to her?

What if she multi-classes or moves toward a Prestige class? How will the player reconcile the character’s inner-life with those statistical changes? A popular multi-class for Sorcerers is the “Soracle” (Sorcerer-Oracle). Will the Sorcerer see the emergence of her new Oracle powers as a balm that soothes the evil nature of her Bloodline, or is it something she’s been laden with, cutting her Bloodline powers short? Such questions can be asked of any multi-class decision. From a role-playing perspective, the question is: when should each choice be made, and why?


Concept vs. Crunch

Maximizing a character’s power is a popular way of playing any tabletop RPG, but if the emphasis is on crunch first and story second, there’s going to be a price to pay. Convoluted and sometimes silly character backgrounds are often created as a thin veneer for min/maxing. Everyone’s had the experience of listening to a player explain-away a number of crunch-based choices by unconvincingly stitching together a story filled with implausible twists of fate – all intended to hide the fact that these choices were  made to optimize the character’s statistical power rather than to tell a compelling tale.

Min/maxing versus thematic development is very much the difference between “Oh well,” and “Oh, wow!” in the minds of our fellow players. Since our characters exist only in our mind (and in the minds of our fellow players) – that distinction and its impact cannot be overstated. Character advancement, as it relates to story is a powerful role-playing tool worthy of player reflection.


That’s nice, but how does all this apply to my Vanilla-flavoured Fighter?

Finding the underlying theme of a Class is essential to finding out how you’re going to role-play that character. Asking yourself why the game designers selected these specific features is a great way to begin your personal exploration of Class-based themes. Granted, some Classes seem to lend themselves to deeper exploration than others. A player might rightly ask how this process can apply to a meat-and-potatoes Class like the Fighter. Sadly, that’s beyond the scope of this column. How you apply these techniques is your call. Look beyond the advancement table and consider making choices based on the legendary theme that underlies the statistical approximation that the Class represents.


“I must go down to the sea again…”

Look at selecting your character’s Class as a trip to the marina. There are plenty of high-speed motor boats with on-board GPS systems. They’ll get you where you’re going and it will be a fun, exciting ride. There are also some sailboats bobbing along the wharf. They demand that you harness the wind and navigate by the stars. How you role-play Class is up to you: is it a well-oiled race or an artistic journey? When creating a new character take the time to consider, not only where you want to go, but how you want to get there before you hop on board.

Blaise is a Toronto area writer and gamer. "...an excessive min/maxer is missing the point of the game. Reducing a character to a list of combat modifiers and dice rolls is not role-playing." -AD&D 2nd Edition DMG page 30 When you think about it, if the Hobbits were optimized it would have kinda ruined the Lord of the Rings.


  1. Niicks

    Niicks - April 21, 2014, 12:24 pm

    Always fun to read these!

    As for the “meat and potatoes” classes, what I did with my fighter for his backstory and personality was exactly what a fighter was made for.
    Use you’re feats to guide who he/she is and how they play. ESPECIALLY traits. The point you made with the sorcerer is exactly how all the classes should be build up and interpreted. What they are good at is how they should affect how they act. Fighters use feats, Sorcs use charisma, Wizards should be played by their skills (being bookworms and knowledge monkeys), Rogues can be tricksters or con artists but can also be noble businessmen. Pay attention to your characters strengths and roleplay those.

    That’s my 2 cents anyways.

  2. gwarne

    gwarne - April 21, 2014, 5:44 pm

    Nice article, Blaise! I share your perspective, and I get excited thinking about the possibilities here.

    I think that this way of looking at role-playing games makes them psychologically very potent. After playing a few scenarios, I feel my imagination starting to grow. I am becoming better at visualizing the settings and assuming the reality of the characters and game situations. I have never done much creative writing, but I am starting to get a sense of what that is all about. I also believe that the game has been feeding my unconscious mind, as my dreams lately have become more alive.

    This a very valuable experience in my life. I don’t get to exercise my imagination at work, and my other pastimes don’t offer much in the way of creativity. Video games, however interactive, don’t really stimulate the imagination much, in my opinion. I know that other people take a different approach to role-playing games, but for me, it is how these games stimulate and call upon the power of imagination that makes them so exciting and rewarding.

    I am starting to get a feel for my character, but I am a long way away from getting inside his mind and letting him choose his own path. It’s an exciting possibility though. I hope I can get there some day.

  3. Blaise

    Blaise - April 21, 2014, 8:58 pm

    Full agreement on your approach to the Fighter! Your point about traits is an excellent one. They’re just dripping with story-potential. It’s funny that when we think of traits we sometimes look at them as just being concerned with character origins…but in real life, our origin stories are hardly something we can shake off as we mature and change. They define us deeply. The true could certainly be true for our characters as well. Smart point.

    Tabletop RPGs are a great way to get your imagination fired-up. The artistic side of getting a chance to play your character as a part in a play rather than as a figure in a video game can be very rewarding. Both sides: “Crunch” and “Fluff” make the game what it is. Finding that balance is (I think) the key to really enjoying a tabletop RPG.

    Thanks to both of you for reading and commenting.

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