Thursday, 29 November 2012

NPC Codex

One of the great things about Paizo and the Pathfinder RPG is their willingness to try new things, be a little experimental, and not just put out more and more of the same. Third Edition D&D became glutted with huge amounts of feats, spells, and prestige classes. Virtually every book seemed to be made up of mostly those three things. Later books started adding new base classes, but it was still more of the same. Only very late in 3.5’s time did the books start to try new things, but those tended to involve entire replacement systems (such as Magic of Incarnum or Tome of Battle) rather than things that simply gave new options for existing material. Pathfinder has had its share of new feats and spells as well, but virtually right from the start, Paizo began to pull back on the amount of prestige classes. Pathfinder may have started as a revision of D&D 3.5, but it very quickly began establishing an identity of its own by expanding the game in new and creative ways. The GameMastery Guide added things like haunts (originally from the Pathfinder Adventure Path series) and updated them to the new rules. The Advanced Player’s Guide introduced archetypes (which admittedly there has been a bit of a glut of since) as well as new rules options for any character, such as additional types of combat manoeuvres and traits.

Of course, the game is built upon certain expected tropes, and these haven’t been abandoned. There have been new classes (and while the added 3.5 classes tended to be “fixes” for existing classes, these have been completely new classes that expand the game instead of rewrite it), new feats, new spells, etc. And of course, there have been new monsters. Each fall since the release of the CoreRulebook, Paizo has released a Bestiaryuntil now (well, this fall does have the Inner Sea Bestiary, but that’s part of the Pathfinder Campaign Setting line). Last year saw the release of Bestiary 3. That makes three hardcover rulebooks full of monsters—hundreds of monsters. I’ve heard it said and seen it written that you can never have too many monsters, and in a sense that’s true. Monsters are fun, and the fun of seeing new creations and variations will never die out. They can be sources of inspiration as well, forming the bases for endless adventure ideas. But in another sense, it’s completely false. You really can have too many monsters. In the first three Bestiaries alone, there are more monsters than anyone can reasonably expect to use in a lifetime of gaming, and that’s not including the numerous new monsters added in Adventure Path volumes and various other sourcebooks.

As such, I was very excited to see that this year’s fall hardcover rulebook release was not slated to be yet another Bestiary. While I’m sure I would have enjoyed one, the offering for this year looked far more exciting. Not only was it something new, it was something the game desperately needed: the NPC Codex. Anyone who’s GMed a 3.5 or Pathfinder game knows that statting up NPCs can be a very time consuming task, especially if the NPCs in question are high level. This one aspect of the game takes up the vast majority of my own preparation time, and in many cases, these NPCs are only around for one encounter (in which they die). The time needed to create NPCs is perhaps the biggest drawback to the game, and one of the things that makes GMing so intimidating to many people. Considering this, it’s actually rather surprising that there was never an official resource like this during Third Edition’s time, either 3.0 or 3.5. Indeed, I don’t think there’s been a book of generic NPCs since First Edition (not counting third party publications).

While the NPC Codex fills a surprisingly empty niche, there are, of course, other considerations when determining whether it is a good book. There needs to be a large amount of variety in order to cover the multitude of different situations that can occur in a Pathfinder game. Also, if the characters are poorly designed (both mechanically and creatively), their usefulness is greatly reduced, and if they’re not useful, they won’t fill the game’s need. I’m happy to say that the NPC Codex succeeds triumphantly in all these regards. Indeed, I’m quite astounded at the sheer number and variety of characters Paizo managed to cram into this 320-page book, especially considering how much space an individual Pathfinder stat block can sometimes take up. There are examples of every core class, every prestige class, every NPC class, and even an appendix with sample animal companions. On top of that, it has write-ups of the iconic characters, and tables for putting together “encounter groups”.

The first chapter covers the core classes and contains an example of all eleven classes at every level from 1 to 20, organized alphabetically by class. One great thing about this chapter is it shows the immense diversity that is possible from just the core classes alone without any archetypes or other add-ons. I’ve had players tell me before that they’re “bored” of the core classes because they’ve exhausted all the possibilities. This attitude has always stunned me as I don’t feel I’ve personally come anywhere close to exhausting all the possibilities and I’ve been playing D&D for 30 years now. Now, if I encounter this again, I can just flip open the NPC Codex and show them ten ideas for each class that they probably haven’t thought of before. I say ten because this chapter is very cleverly arranged to alternate each sample NPC between a “fairly normal example of that class” and an example that is a little more “experimental”. Every odd-levelled character is one of the normal ones—built with the typical skills and feats that the majority of members of that class are built with. It’s important to have these available as they represent the average people the PCs may encounter, and they’re always no more than one level away from the level you need them to be. But sometimes you need something a little different, and that’s where the even-numbered levels come in. From the Sea Captain (halfling druid 8—yes, a druid pirate) to the Infernal Champion (human fighter 20 built around the various critical feats and specializing in making his targets blind, bleeding, and exhausted), there’s a huge variety. Of course, they can’t include every possibility, but there’s enough here to cover most needs. And even amongst the “normal” levels, there’s still a wide range of diversity. Every race is represented in the first chapter as well. Alas, the book isn’t big enough to include an example of every race at every level (the book that did that would be huge indeed), but there is a good spread, with several members of each race with every class.

Every character in the book (not just in the first chapter) is given a “name” that identifies its primary role, from the Crime Lord (gnome fighter 19) to the Poacher (human ranger 3), and there is usually a brief generic description following the stats. For many of the characters, there is also a description and background for a specific personality for that NPC type. For example, the Poacher has an example character of Brayvek the Butcher. This helps GMs who are stuck not just for stats, but also for a person to go with those stats. Unfortunately, while there are example personalities with most of the NPCs, space dictates how long the entries are and whether there is an entry at all. Several of these example characters have no more than a sentence or two to describe them (Brayvek the Butcher only gets one, albeit three-line, sentence). I can’t fault the book’s designers for this. It is a simple fact that Pathfinder stat blocks take up a lot of space, particularly at high levels. Just to fit everything into the book, low-level characters are often placed two per page, limiting room for lengthy descriptions even more. Still, there are a few characters that manage to get longer write-ups, such as Amaryllis Hollendock, the example personality for the Lucky Mage (halfling sorcerer 11). All in all, it’s great that the book manages to include as much background description as it does.

Chapter Two covers prestige classes. As every Pathfinder character with a prestige class has at least one other class as well, there’s a lot more potential variety here. As such, this chapter can really only provide a broad overview of the possibilities. There are examples of each prestige class from the Core Rulebook at levels 2, 4, 7, and 10. No character with a prestige class can ever really be considered “normal”, so this chapter doesn’t alternate in that way like the first. However, that doesn’t stop there being some very creative and unusual characters. I love seeing strange, but believable, class combinations, so characters such as the Sound Warrior (halfling bard 5, druid 4, mystic theurge 4) particularly appeal to me.

The third chapter covers the NPC classes. I must admit, I kind of hoped to see some 20th-level examples in here, just because the idea is so ridiculous that it would also be simultaneously great fun. As such, I was mildly disappointed that the examples only go up to level 10. This isn’t a criticism, however. It actually makes a great deal of sense to limit the examples in this way. Not only does it save space for other things, it also eliminates a large swath of characters that would probably never see use in virtually anyone’s game. After all, how often do you have need of a 20th-level commoner? While looking at the stats for one might have been fun, they would constitute completely wasted space. Instead, we get an example of each NPC class from levels 1 to 10, and like the other chapters, there’s a wide range of variety to cover all needs. Not only that, all of them immediately come across as useful characters. NPC classes can often seem unneeded (especially past level 5 or so), but all the examples here at once make sense and fill a niche, even the 10th-level commoner, the Traitor—one of my personal favourites, in fact.

The fourth and final chapter (not including the appendices) covers the iconic characters. For those unaware, the iconics are the characters whose illustrations appear with each of the class descriptions in the Core Rulebook, from Amiri the barbarian to Valeros the fighter and Merisiel the rogue. These characters also appear in much of the artwork that graces Pathfinder books and adventures, and they used to be included as pre-rolled characters in adventure paths and modules. Here, each iconic gets a full background write-up (usually about half a page, although this varies—again by how much space is needed for the stat blocks) and the stats are presented at levels 1, 7, and 12. Unlike the other characters in this book, the iconics are intended for use as player characters. As such, they have PC wealth and use a higher array for determining their ability scores. This chapter is the least useful for me, personally. My players generally prefer to make their own characters, and I’m not likely to use any of the iconics as NPCs either. However, they are popular characters and there has been a lot of demand for them, so I’m not surprised to see them here, and overall, they only take up a small amount of the book (Chapter Four is one of the shortest chapters).

The remainder of the book is the appendices, the first of which provides stats for numerous animal companions for every effective druid level from 1 to 20. Throughout the rest of the book, all druids and rangers, by default, don’t have animal companions, instead having the alternate option for their class (each druid has a domain, for example). This allows space to be saved with each NPC write-up. If GMs want a druid with an animal companion, all they need to do is swap out the domain (which simply means ignoring a few spells and a granted ability) and pick one of the companions from this appendix. This is a very clever way of handling it, and I applaud Paizo for taking this route. It allows even more variety amongst the characters.

The second appendix is invaluable for GMs who quickly need not just one NPC, but a whole group of them. It contains tables with suggested combinations of the characters appearing throughout the book. The tables are broken up into categories, which are further broken up by Challenge Rating. The final appendix is an index of abilities and where their descriptions can be found in the Core Rulebook.

Of course, in some ways, the NPC Codex is very similar to a Bestiary, and no Bestiary is complete without illustrations. Almost every NPC in this book has a full-colour illustration to accompany it. The only cases where there aren’t pictures occur when there are two (or more, in the case of the low-level commoners) NPCs on a page. In such cases, there is only a single illustration on the page. And the artwork, for the most part, is really quite wonderful. I also particularly like that the “cheesecake” factor is kept to a minimum. Indeed, there’s very little of it. I don’t often comment on art in my reviews, partly because I don’t want them to devolve into rants about some of the ridiculous representations of women in fantasy art (that’s best left to separate posts and essays, and to be fair, Paizo is much, much better in this regard than so much else out there, even if they’re not perfect). With this book, though, there’s not much fear of that happening. The depictions are quite reasonable throughout and generally fit the character they’re depicting. The only one that really stands out as problematic is the Battle Skald (human barbarian 6, bard 4, Pathfinder chronicler 10). I’m at a loss for words as to why anyone would ever dress that way. The best art in the book is the cover art. While it’s a very busy picture, it’s also one of the cleverest cover pictures I’ve seen, deftly showing off all the fantasy tropes and giving a very clear idea of what the book contains.

Overall, the NPC Codex is a book I wish had existed years ago. It’s long overdue, but at least it’s here now. It has a stunning variety of character options, with something to meet almost any need. Its presence will cut down the long preparation hours needed to create NPCs considerably. I highly recommend it to all Pathfinder GMs out there.