On the Vigilante

I’ve been spending some time on the Paizo subreddit since one of my players told me I was on it and, in doing so, that it existed. For the most part it’s very similar to the Wizards boards I frequented in the 3.0 and 3.5 days (40% optimization advice, 30% rules questions, 15% roleplaying/DMing advice, 10% gaming stories, 5% other) but all in one place instead of split by topic across various boards, which is…nice, I guess?

It was there I learned Paizo had a system that allows players to playtest rules before they’re officially released on a book, which I think is a really neat idea as long as you can get past the “I loved this feature in playtest, and now it is gone, ruined forever” tendency. I am disappointed in the length of the playtest, though. Each round of testing lasts for a month, which isn’t long enough to get a feel for a class. I normally play in/run ongoing campaigns where I can’t build a new character, slot them into the campaign in place of my current character, and adventure with them at various levels to see how the class grows. It’s like the playtest is designed for a campaign where people can play more than once per week, with different people and parties each time, in a way that doesn’t require an ongoing storyline so characters can sub in and out at will and the DM doesn’t oh I just got it.

Still, when I saw there was a vigilante class playtest I jumped on it. After reading over the class I commented to one of my players that it felt like a class that seemed separate from the normal D&D party system. A vigilante really wants to be a lone wolf, hiding behind their persona socially but also charging first into combat but also casting spells and so forth. When a vigilante is in a party with other character it seems like an obvious Law #4 violation. Her reply was “then why not have a whole party of vigilantes, so they all do things the same way?”

So our all-vigilante campaign starts this weekend. And during character creation, we got seven people with various levels of media background and system proficiency together to pull apart the class and put it back together again, and then a month to process between session zero and session one (late July / early August is a terribly busy time for growns-ups). We’ll be too late to participate in the playtest, but we have formed a couple of opinions on the class.

For one, the vigilante has a lot going on. It gives a player two identities, one of which requires one of four specializations (one of which requires a further specialization), and each identity has an independent set of talent trees. This is spread over fourteen pages of text with no art and few paragraph breaks. There’s no “glance at the vigilante to see if I want to play it”. It’s more “sit with with a coffee and get ready to understand a lot of moving parts.” Before even reviewing the abilities themselves it’s clear this is not a class for new players.

But while the whole of the class is overwhelming, parts of it can be anemic. Here is the full and complete talent tree for a vigilante’s social persona:

  • Renown
    • Safe House
    • Loyal Aid (L3)
    • Feign Innocence (L5)
      • Subjective Truth (L9)
    • Great Renown (L7)
      • Incredible Renown (L11)
        • Instant Recognition (L13)
  • Social Grace
  • Many Guises (L5)
    • Everyman (L11)
      • Any Guise (L17)
  • Quick Change (L7)
    • Immediate Change (L13)

At fourteen items it doesn’t look that bad. But a vigilante gets one of these every two levels. He’ll end up with ten of these fourteen items, which doesn’t leave a lot of options. Also, look at it level-by-level. At L1 he can take renown or social grace. If he took renown at L1 he can take a few things at L3. If he instead took social grace, now he can take renown and only renown. A vigilante who doesn’t want a reputation doesn’t exist. It took us a few minutes to piece this together; the talents are sorted alphabetically and visually scanning for “must be Xth level” wasn’t helping us. Eventually we gave up and made a tech tree like this just to make sense of it and realize, yes, if you want to avoid a specific talent the rest of your build is largely hard-coded.

Speaking of hard-coding, the vigilante only has a few mandatory features. A vigilante must have two identities: vigilante and social (a nitpick: if you’re going to have two halves of a character, don’t give one the same name as the class. You might as well name them “primary” and “ancillary, don’t worry too much about it”.) A vigilante must inflict fear when he attacks an opponent unaware of him. That’s it. Everything else is controlled by talents, specializations, talents within specializations, or talents within specializations within specializations. While this means that class has a lot of variation, it also means its identity is weak. It boils down to “you have two names and people are scared of you”, which is any class that can use skills.

The optional features are all over the place. Some of the vigilante talents are a feat with an additional benefit (Fist of the Avenger: Improved Unarmed Strike, but your fist and gauntlet attacks deal an extra level/4 damage). Some of them are far better than this (Mad Rush: full attack after a charge, which was an epic feat back in my day). Some are so good they’re almost mandatory (Arcane Training/Divine Power: Gain a new level of spells, and in fact it’s the only way to gain any spell slots at all). Some grant features from other classes (Evasive: …evasion). On the bright side this means you can have a campaign of vigilantes without similar builds. But it also means there’s no way to balance them all, and what we’ll actually see is an influx of the most mechanically viable vigilantes and a whole bunch of unused features taking up space.

We still haven’t discussed the first thing I said about the class: it’s not for parties. A vigilante’s job is to do their own thing and hope the rest of the party doesn’t mind. The class’ core mechanic, the social/vigilante split, is built around NPCs not knowing both personas are the same character. Well, when the townsfolk see a fighter, cleric, wizard and Jim Johnson enter town, and a fighter, cleric, wizard, and the Vermillion Mask saving orphans, they’re going to put two and two together. Unless the character disassociates at least one persona from the party their core mechanic and flavor buy-in is shot.

This may sound like a hypocritical complaint considering my very last post was about how splitting the party is okay, but it’s actually another side of the same coin. The vigilante wants to always split the party. That’s not a storytelling tool, it’s a power grab to control the narrative spotlight. I’ve had more than my share of “separate the party so only I get to act” players, and a class whose hook is to facilitate and encourage that sort of behavior rubs me the wrong way. That said, it is definitely possible to run a vigilante in a normal party, even when he goes lone wolf. I’ve also had plenty of “separate the party to make things more entertaining for everybody” situations. But it takes a certain kind of player, group, and DM to do it effectively. Without a “this class is for intermediate gamers” warning the vigilante is asking for trouble.

I kind of feel like the vigilante shouldn’t be a class, but the Pathfinder version of a theme (re: the first link in this post). That is, a character has two advancement trees: class and theme. The class works like normal Pathfinder. The theme tree instead covers advancement in a profession or other secondary characteristic, and characters only advance in it via quests. It’s a lot like mythic tiers but significantly less game-breaking. When a player does enough vigilante things, they get to choose a new vigilante talent and built their second identity, or get a lair, or strike fear in the hearts of their enemies, etc. This strips away most of the vigilante, gets it down to a couple of pages, and lets players have the mechanical benefits of being a masked crime-fighter without giving them an overly complicated class where they don’t even get to read 60% of its options. It would requite a new theme mechanic, but you can’t convince me a player wouldn’t jump at the chance to have her own day-in-the-limelight quests while advancing her secondary career as a superhero, or a government official, or a magical sage, or royalty. Heck, I might just write it.

I won’t be able to have a complete opinion about the vigilante until I see how it plays, and even then I’m only going to see how a specific group of players handle L8 vigilantes (and a couple of L4 vigilantes/L4 something else, because why not) in a specific environment. But the first step to playing a class is reading it and the second step is building a character with it, and if we have seven people all agreed that the vigilante has problems in the first two steps I’m not sure how many times the final product will even get to the table.

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