Pathfinder is, sort to speak, my home system away from my home system. As such, I tend to buy the books. In this case, I tend to buy the PDFs, and on Friday I purchased the Pathfinder Ultimate Combat PDF from Paizo.
This first part (yeah, I keep starting too many series of posts, but otherwise you’ll all lynch me for “tl;dr”ing everything) will go over the crunchy bits – how the class/class archetypes compare to each other on balance/usefulness terms, things like that.
I’m ignoring the gunslinger, mostly because none of my GMs would let me play as one. I could make comparisons to a fighter archer, but honestly it isn’t worth it. It boils down to “if you like the style and are allowed to play one, play the Gunslinger; if you don’t like the style and/or aren’t allowed to play as one, stick with a fighter or ranger.”
Weapon Proficiency – +Kama, katana, kusarigama, nunchaku, sai, shuriken, siangham, wakizashi; -sap, hand crossbow, rapier
All right, I have a really dumb question. Why is the Ninja weapon proficiency list so much better than the Rogues? I mean, unless if you wanted to use the lowly sap, you’re far, far, FAR better off with the Ninja skill list. The Wakizashi, in Pathfinder, is a strictly-better Rapier, for instance. Shuriken aren’t quite strictly-better than the Hand Crossbow, but they’re more useful in more situations. On top of that, you have a bunch of monk weaponry plus a double weapon – hell, the only double weapon Rogues get is the lowly Quarterstaff! Not that double weapons are super awesome or anything, they’re just not very common. Edge for the Ninja.
Skills – +Knowledge: Nobility, -Knowledge: Dungeoneering
Honestly, I think K:Nobility might actually come up more often – and by more often, I mean maybe three times in a campaign vs. twice. Seriously, by crunching standards, these two skills are generally not worth throwing more than a handful of points in at most. Edge for no one.
Level 1 – +Poison Use, -Trapfinding
Or, in short, the flavor. Ninja are supposed to be assassins, Rogues are supposed to be deft with traps. Really, which one of these becomes more useful depends on the GM and style of campaign – I mean, Poison Use is more obviously useful (assuming you don’t have a GM that believes that any use of poison is an evil act – thanks Book of Exalted Deeds!) in combat, but you might be on a campaign where those bits of extra stat damage… don’t do much because you’re primarily fighting swarms of things rather than individual creatures. On the flip side, trap disarming is something you can do even without the skill.. as long as they aren’t magical. Also, trap disarming is only useful in a game where you’re going to encounter traps; some GMs don’t like traps or only use them when there is a rogue in the party. Slight edge for Ninja.
Level 2 – +Ki pool, -Evasion
Evasion is one of those classic Rogue abilities – in comes a fireball and the sneaky thief is safe! Giving up evasion, even if it is only for eight levels (you can pick it up as a Master Trick if you want it), is a pretty powerful thing. Ninja, however, gain the ability to use a Ki Pool. Even without taking a single ability that uses it, Ki Pools are ridiculously powerful – for instance, you can use a single Ki point for having an extra attack on a full attack per round (similar to Haste). You get a bonus equal to half your level + charisma modifier per day for Ki points. This is very powerful and obviously greater than that of Evasion. Edge for the Ninja.
Note: I didn’t include the Rogue Talent vs. Ninja Trick thing. Why? They can each be used to gain the other’s abilities; in fact, the only real difference is due to you having Ki points as a Ninja and not (normally) as a Rogue. They’re identical.
Level 3 – +No trace, -Trap Sense
I’m not a fan of trap sense. Sure, it fits in with the style of Rogue and you can use a rogue to Fighter Trap Disarm (read: trigger all of the traps by just running at them), but it just doesn’t match my style. Any rogue worth their salt will disarm most of the traps in front of them, especially if they have the rogue trick that lets them passively detect traps. On the other hand, having +lv/3 to opposed Stealth, Disguise, and the DC for tracking the Ninja is a pretty nice bonus. Edge for the Ninja.
Level 6 – +Light Steps
A cool ability that isn’t directly combat useful. Obvious edge for the Ninja, just because the Ninja loses nothing compare to the Rogue.
Level 10 – +Master Tricks, -Advanced Talents
Unlike the Ninja Tricks / Rogue Talents comparison, these are not interchangeable – which is good, since otherwise the Ninja would be way too powerful. Of the Master Tricks, Assassinate, Ghost Step, Invisible Blade, and Master Disguise are the only useful ones, and even Ghost Step and Invisible Blade are only situationally useful (they both replicate spells that the Ninja could have using UMD and a wand… which, given that Charisma is the secondary stat for a Ninja, they damn well better use UMD…). Advanced Talents, by comparison, are far more numerous and useful. Edge for the Rogue, finally.
Level 20 – +Hidden Master, -Master Strike
For capstone abilities, neither are all that great to be honest. Master Strike is basically the Rogue’s version of the Assassinate Master Trick, only more versatile. Master Strike is something along the same lines as Invisible Blade, only for Superior Invisibility. At least that one is a level 8 spell but better (this one works vs. True Seeing). Slight edge for the Ninja.
Conclusion: Ninjas are better than Rogues in 99% of situations. The only, ONLY situation where Ninja aren’t better than Rogues is when you’re going into a trap-based game. So, in short, if your GM likes traps and/or other things with near-perpetual reflex-for-half style of attacks, go with a Rogue. If your GM allows the Ninja and doesn’t fall under the above category, go for the Ninja. Now, I’m not saying the Ninja is overpowered; the Rogue is certainly not the most powerful class in Pathfinder (nor is it the weakest), I’m just saying that I think it might be strictly better than the default Rogue mechanically. To give you an idea of how important this is to me, my next character… is a Rogue.
Now, I’m going to admit a bit of bias here – I don’t like the Cavalier. It is almost completely for style reasons; I don’t really enjoy playing mounted characters, for some reason, mostly because the games I’m in end up either indoors or in cities.
Level 1 – +Resolve, -Tactician
Resolve is an interesting ability for low levels. To my knowledge, it is probably the only way to remove status effects on yourself at level one, plus allowing you to re-roll will/fort saves, plus allowing you to auto-stabilize. Definitely a useful ability. On the other hand, Tactician allows you to gain a teamwork feat and then grant that feat to people in a 30′ AoE around you. Could be potentially awesome, probably wouldn’t be. Edge to the Samurai.
Level 3 – +Weapon Expertise, -Cavalier’s Charge
Definitely two different styles. Cavalier’s Charge lets you negate any penalties for charging and get an extra bonus – all around awesome, generally worth around a feat and a half (Weapon Specialization for a particular combat style plus negating a penalty). Weapon Expertise is also pretty awesome, giving you the ability to take Weapon Specialization (and anything else fighter feat wise) with certain weapons and giving you Quick Draw for free, plus a bonus to confirmations on critical attack rolls. While Weapon Expertise is always helpful (in combat), Cavalier’s Charge is definitely more powerful – when you’re not trapped in a tiny area. Having said that, I’m still giving the slight edge to the Cavalier.
Level 4 – +Mounted Archer, -Expert Trainer
Both of these abilities… kind of suck. The expert trainer gives you a bonus to teaching tricks, but honestly the DCs aren’t that high to begin with. On the other hand, it lets you teach tricks to other player’s mounts, making an all-mounted-character campaign substantially more awesome. Mounted Archer, on the other hand, allows you to fire arrows while mounted easier. If you don’t use a bow, tough cookies, this ability is worthless. Slight edge to the Cavalier.
Level 9 – +Greater Resolve, -Greater Tactician
Greater Resolve negates Criticals with a use of resolve. Greater Tactician gives you another teamwork feat and makes it faster to give allies the bonus on it. This time, I think the Edge goes to the Cavalier, as making your tactical maneuvers into a swift action means that the Cavalier can also benefit from what is being given out; even if your allies are idiots that can’t use tactics to save their lives, you can.
Level 11 – +Honorable Stand, -Mighty Charge
Honorable Stand allows you to be immune to fear-style effects and makes your Resolve a bit more awesome. On the other hand, Mighty Charge grants you Improved Critical when charging and the ability to have a free combat maneuver attempt whenever you charge. Yeah, no brainer, Edge to the Cavalier.
Level 17 – +True Resolve, -Master Tactician
Master Tactician adds more of the same – basically, two tactical feats instead of one. On the other hand, True Resolve allows you to NOT DIE. Huge edge to the Samurai, as this is the only “I’m not dead yet” style of ability I’ve ever seen a fighter-like. Combined with the “I’m really conscious” ability from earlier Resolve, you end up with “Grinning Fearlessly” from Breath of Fire, and that’s just plain awesome.
Level 20 – +Last Stand, -Supreme Charge
Last Stand reminds me of an old FFRPG ability called “Fighter Challenge”, where a fighter had the ability to challenge a single character to a one-on-one duel. In FFRPG, this was implemented terribly as there was no logical reason why a mage, for instance, would ever accept such a thing – which, since they had no choice and had to use melee weapons, meant that Fighters could simply take out mages. This was not well thought out. The Pathfinder version is more like how I’d prefer to see such a thing; you become really strong against weapon attacks from anyone and you become really strong vs. attacks outside of your target. Or, in short, you’re challenging them because you are strong rather than because they are strong. It is a logical thing, and this at least feels like a Capstone class ability. Supreme Charge, on the other hand, is the feat Spirited Charge plus a critical focus feat. If you don’t have Spirited Charge as a Cavalier by this point, I’m going to wonder what in the world you’re doing. It doesn’t say if it stacks or not though – if it does, then this is actually an Edge for no one. Otherwise, Edge for the Samurai.
Conclusion: If you are playing a Cavalier, you better be short. Wait, what? Basically, if you can’t use your charging-on-a-steed abilities, you’re practically worthless as a Cavalier compared to a Samurai. On the other hand, if you are short, your mount is medium sized and thus can actually fit indoors and inside dungeons. You can ride your mount anywhere most of your party can go. If you are not short, you should probably play a Samurai. It isn’t strictly better, or even generally better; it really depends on how often you think you can charge. In my experience though? Indoors battles happen frequently, and you’re not charging much of anywhere if you have a horse.