Sunday, April 18, 2010

4E Success or Failure: Paragon Paths

About this Series: This post is part of a series about some of the new concepts in 4th Edition, particularly ones I had a hand in designing. It will judge which aspects succeeded and failed, and rate how close the mechanic came to its goals and how beneficial it is to the game experience.

This is all my opinion, and your tastes or experiences might give you a higher or lower opinion of whatever I'm talking about. There's also a wide span between the great examples of each mechanic and the weakest, so I'll often qualify my opinion when I'm talking about the potential versus the reality.

Today's topic is Paragon Paths

Last time, when talking about epic destinies, I said:
I'm covering this first partially because I want to talk about paragon paths soon, and I plan to call back to some of the things I'll say here. The two have similar goals: They aim to enhance the feel and themes of each tier and provide more character differentiation.

I'll say off the bat that I don't think paragon paths accomplish what they're supposed to do as well as epic destinies do. Mostly, this is because they're muddled and inconsistent. I'll explain why I think that is later on. But first, what went right?

  • Mechanical Subsystems: The best paragon paths build on the core of a class but add a new mechanic that changes the way you play. They have a sort or subsystem or game within the game that is too involved to really put in feats (not that that stopped anybody from doing so). The prime example is the Life-Stealer (PH 141). It takes a normal warlock function (collecting souls from defeated enemies) and tweaks it (by having you check which origin the creature was), then ties that mechanic into the path's powers (by having them care about which life sparks you have). Paths let you group all these mechanics in one place instead of having a toolbox of feats, items, and powers you have to take to gain full advantage (which not only makes it easier to design, but easier to build the character).
  • Theme Extension: My second favorite paths behind subsystem paths are those that extend a common power/build theme. Examples include the hospitaler (PH 101) and wild mage (PH2 151). Since the paladin has options for healing, you can pick a bunch of healing powers before grabbing hospitaler, making it a continuation of your existing theme. Wild mage gives your already random sorcerer a bigger batch of random mechanics. I like these paths because they feel organic. Later, I'll describe how many paths just don't.
  • Expands Races and Other Marginal Mechanics: There are plenty of ways to build and bend your character's class abilities, from powers to magic items to feats. Races and other smaller mechanics have less potential to define your character, but paragon paths that grow out of them help out some. This was a later development, but racial paths, channel divinity paths, and the like let you get more mileage out of those mechanics.
  • Boosts Your Action Points: It's nice to have a default part of the game that makes your action points better. I prefer ones that give you something extra when you spend an AP rather than give you a different benefit instead of your extra action.

Note: In my article on epic destinies, I described three "successes" for them. They were epic feel, big impact with few additions, and broad acquisition possibilities. I'm listing these again so we can contrast what paragon paths do in these areas.
  • Why is this Paragon?: Let's start off with what I consider the biggest sticking point for paragon paths (and the paragon tier as a whole, for that matter): What "paragon tier" means isn't clearly defined, or at least wasn't clear in our minds when we were designing the paragon paths system. Epic tier's easy: You take on the powerful forces that control the world. It's act 3, where you finish out your story with a bang and become a legend. Act 1 was easy, too: You were just starting out, taking out the small-time punks at the bottom of the ladder. Act 2 is always tougher, and paragon paths suffer for it. There are some vague tropes that define paragon (planar travel, growing power and fame), but it's harder to say what it means to be a paragon tier hero. Some paths, like guildmaster thief, hint at your stature. Most just kind of intimate that you've some...stuff. I'd draw a line between paths and destinies at an a/the point: You're a daggermaster, but you're the archmage. I think paths would be more compelling if that point were moved back a bit. At heroic tier, you're one of several clerics in the world. At paragon, you're Kord's sole herald, though there have been many before you. At epic, Kord makes you a demigod, something he's never done before. (Not a perfect example, but you get the idea.)
  • You Got Prestige Classes in My Paragon Paths: Frequently during design, paths were described as the replacement for prestige classes. To some degree, this made sense. In 3E, a prestige class was kind of a mark of accomplishment; you had built your character up to the point where you could take the PrC. That's kind of roughly approximate to paragon tier. But in the end, I think this comparison hurt paragon paths and prevented them from feeling as unique as they should have. Prestige classes were flexible, representing some amount of training in whatever they were about. Like most things in 3E, you could go as deep or shallow as you pleased, and you could acquire the PrC at a variety of points in your character's life. Paragon paths, though, appear at 11th level and lock you in. This isn't bad in and of itself, but it does mean that straight-up converting prestige classes to 4E doesn't really make satisfying paths. Since "prestige class" meant so many things and covered so much ground, "paragon path" ended up working that way, too.
  • Too Many Little Boosts: Before the final version of the 4E rules, classes had a ton of little class features at various levels. Fortunately, we learned our lesson and pared them down. Unfortunately, paragon paths didn't get the memo and ended up a little bloated. I said in the last post that epic destinies get a lot of mileage out of a few mechanics and a lot of story. Paths get a little mileage out of a bunch of mechanics and too little story.
  • The Good with the Bad: Chances are, you'll find something to dislike in a path. Maybe the 16th-level feature bores you, or you don't really want the utility power. Taking a path might mean taking some crap you don't care about to get the stuff you want. This problem is actually worse than in 3E because the designer has to fill all those slots. Prestige classes were more free-form, so if the designer didn't think of a good mechanic, he or she could exercise the option to just not include one. Path design can force you in a corner, where you know the features are, by design, not quite significant to bother including.
  • Abrupt Shift: I mentioned in the miscellaneous section of the epic destiny article that it can be jarring that everybody assumes a destiny at once. I've promoted that to a "failure" here because it's even more egregious at 11th level, mostly because the paragon tier doesn't seem as different from heroic as epic does from paragon. Fortunately, this is an easy fix. Since there are so many mechanical elements in a path, the DM can give one out early to indicate a PC moving toward a path.
  • The Drastic Alteration: It's possible for paths to both have a really cool concept and be wrongheaded or frustrating. These are the ones that drastically change some of your class's trappings. Wizard of the spiral tower is the first example. Yes, it's cool to be a wizard who uses a sword to channel magic. But it's not cool to wait till 11th level to do so! Occasionally, a character even has to kinda suck for a while to set up for a path that will change the game. (Certainly not as common as in 3E, but it happens.) Really, this type of path should be altered to fit in the "extension of existing theme" category mentioned above by giving feats and powers that set the foundation for the theme, but are good on their own.
  • Lack of Flavor: More often than with destinies, paths grow out of mechanics first and story/world concepts second (though I'd say it's still story-inspired most of the time). One of the reasons is that they're less broad, and another is that you don't really have that much room to write story background for them! They can be really light on story hooks, and even the ones with cool backstories might be passed over in favor of the mechanically best paths. And, honestly, a lot of players just don't care. Some don't pick a path—or even think about it—until leveling to 11th. A path needs to give some solid roleplaying hooks if it's going to have an impact on the game beyond "I have another power." (And I'd argue that it should.)
  • Simply the Best: Paragon paths are narrow enough that, when it comes time to select them, you can easily pare down your options to the cream of the crop. With a set bunch of abilities arrayed by level, it's not hard to compare one path to another and just take the mechanically best one. This is harder with classes, which have varying roles and a lot of options, and epic destinies, which rely on a few big mechanics that often go beyond the normal rules and are therefore harder to compare based on pure numerical advantages. Since a paragon path is a pretty big choice, I think fewer people take chances on a "weak" path than they do on a "weak" power or feat. You have about 14 slots for class powers, 18 slots for feats, and 1 paragon path slot that equates to three powers and some features. This worse/better/weirder the more choice you have. You're looking at all the class, race, and power source paths (along with the ones for anything you've multiclassed into), so you get even more pressure to find the perfect one.
  • Proliferation: In the compendium, there are 80 epic destinies. How many paragon paths do you think there are, between books and D&D Insider? The answer is 418—about 5 times as many. If I'm doing my math correctly, paragon path powers account for 1/5 of all powers in the game. I try to avoid designing new paths for the simple reason that there are already a ton nobody will ever take.
  • Power Restrictions Limit Design: As with destinies, I'm going to put "hard to design" stuff in miscellaneous. Being difficult to design for a professional shouldn't take points off (though if DMs were intended to make them, it would). This topic mostly ties into the broadness of paths. Theoretically, you could make a path that fits a wizard, rogue, and druid. But you have these attack powers, and you have to consider what weapons, implements, and ability scores all those classes use. Now, I'll grant that this isn't an impossible hoop to jump through, and the problem might lie more in the base setup of scores and items, but it does make them harder to design and harder for the player to process if they have all the extra language they need to work.
The Score
So I'd say paragon paths don't live up to their name or really achieve their intended goal, though as I wrote this I found more to like about them than I'd initially expected. Let's give them a grade of: