[Pathfinder] The Divine Caster You've Been Looking For?

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

If you're anything like me, you've always found the Cleric class to be a little weird. Where other than media that specifically springs from D&D do you see this divine, "godly" character who prays for spells and runs around in a breastplate eviscerating opponents with their deity's preferred weapon? Aren't most of the divine spellcaster type tropes out there of robe and cloister types, or at least your duster and tie types like John Constantine? Even the evil divine types are always portrayed in heavy black robes with deep hoods or something of the like, preferring darksome spells and magically enhanced minions to wearing metal armor and beating people with their own two hands. The cleric we have is kind of a weird design artifact, born from the wargaming roots of D&D and oddly unchanged since its conception.

The priest attempts to address that gap between the more commonly seen trope of the berobed and scholarly divine petitioner and the mechanical need for a spellcaster who can provide magical healing and support while surviving the rigors of an adventuring life, so let's take a look at how it does, hmmm?

The priest has a d6 hit die, 1/2 BAB, Will as it's only Good save, and 4+Int skill points off a skill list fairly similar to the cleric's. The Priest is proficient with all simple weapons, but not any armors or shields.

The priest, as one might expect given the class chassis, is a full 9 level Wisdom-based divine caster drawing from the cleric spell list, with a spellcasting mechanic somewhat similar to the arcanist's, which is actually the first point that I'm not entirely sure how to feel about. To elaborate - the priest gains the same number of spell slots per day as a wizard, and prepares the same number of spells as a cleric (slightly more from 5th level on including domain spells), casting freely from its prepared spells using its slots. So, for example, if the priest has chosen cure light woundsbless, and divine favor as their prepared spells for the day at 2nd level, they can cast any combination of those three spells from their 3 slots for the day. Obviously, the priest's flexibility in how it spends its slots is a powerful factor, particularly considering that unlike virtually every other caster with spontaneous flexibility it gains new spell levels at the same rate as the wizard, and the priest automatically gains either cure or inflict spells as bonus prepared spells, giving him a de facto version of the cleric's spontaneous casting. This flexible casting may mean the priest has fewer spells per day than the cleric, but I think he's clearly the superior caster, even before we move into its other class features, which can further modify and enhance the priest's spellcasting power.

In addition to its spellcasting class feature, the priest gains a selection of bonus languages, domains, a new class feature called divine gift, channel energy, a sacred bond, 3 bonus feats, and a capstone ability called hallowed vessel. I'll talk a bit about of each these, including what the provide and how they fit into the overall class.

The priests selection of bonus languages (Abyssal, Celestial, and Infernal) is a nice little fluffy mechanic whose actual value will depend on starting race. Since this merely modifies the starting options without actually providing any additional languages, it will be essentially a dead class feature without any real benefit to races with open bonus language lists, like humans, and multiclass characters, but ensures that your priest has at least the option of conferring with whatever divine powers they worship in their preferred tongue. This might have been better implemented as an option that specifically granted the priest a bonus language based on their alignment, so it isn't a wasted ability for many of the characters who might take the class.

The domain class feature works, essentially, exactly like the cleric domain class feature, but the priest gains three domains to the cleric's two. This actually is a huge boon with more impact than one might expect, because not only does it grant an additional set of domain abilities for the priest to utilize, but it's also where the priest's potential spell list gains a big leg up compared to the cleric's; that extra domain is potentially a whole set of thematic spells levels 1-9 that the priest has access to over the cleric. This advantage is bolstered a bit by the fact that starting at 5th level and every odd numbered level thereafter, the priest gains an additional domain spell option in its prepared spells shoring up the power of its flexible casting.

The priest's divine gift class feature can be used 1/day at 1st level, scaling up to 7/day at 19th level. Divine gifts are typically activated as a sift action, and the priest can select any of the divine gifts available each time he uses the ability. The gifts themselves include direct offensive abilities like Smiting Burst, which deals 2d8 + 1d8/ 2 levels to enemies within a 20-foot burst or 1d8/class level to a single enemy and causes them to be shaken on a failed Will save, support options like Divine Intervention which the priest can use as an immediate action to allow an ally to reroll one d20 roll adding 1/2 the priest's class level to the result, or more technical options like Ascetic's Blessing and Supplant Spell. Ascetic's Blessing and Supplant Spell actually need to be called out as being fairly exceptional abilities and things a GM should really be aware of. Ascetic Blessing has a minor verbage issue ( It states: "The priest is treated as having any one metamagic feat of her choosing when casting her next divine spell. This does not alter the casting time of the spell.[...]" The intent here seems to pretty obviously be that the priest can apply any metamagic feat of her choosing to a spell without increasing its casting time, but the actual rules language doesn't actually cover applying the feat to the spell. Aside from the hiccup in the rules structure, this is a "holy-s%&+-are-you-kidding-me-this-is-mythic-level-crazy" ability. Any metamagic feat? Not "any metamagic feat the priest knows"? Add to that the other ability I mentioned, Supplant Spell, which allows the priest to swap out any one of her prepared spells with another spell on her list of the same level, and the Priest's spellcasting is officially vaulted to "substantially better than the cleric's". Divine gifts are powerful modifiers of the priest's abilities, even with their limited uses per day, ensuring that even priest's who've made some poor choices in their feat and/or spell selection will always have the potential to pluck out a winning play.

The priest's sacred bond ability is similar to the wizard's arcane bond in that loss or destruction of the item (typically a holy symbol) imposes some steep penalties on the priest's ability to execute their spells. Unlike the arcane bond, the sacred bond doesn't affect spell recall (already well covered by the priest's semi-spontaneous casting and divine gifts), but instead allows the priest to cast any cure or inflict spell with a range of touch that they've prepared at close range instead. I'm... actualy not a huge fan of this ability. While being able to cast cure/inflict spells at range is a nice boon, it presupposes that the priest is actually going to be spending his in combat actions on cure/inflict spells. For priests who may no longer rely (or never relied at all) on the cure/inflict line to cover their in-combat healing, this is actually a huge and worthless liability. I would have loved to see this option expanded with some additional choices, whether that be a divine companion option (angelic or undead familiars/companions would be awesome), a sacred/favored weapon option, or even just some variants on the benefits available to the sacred bond. As it is, I find that a mandatory class feature with the potential to all but completely shut the priest down, whose only benefit applies to a tiny subset of the spells available which the priest may not (and in many builds arguably should not) even utilize in a situation where the benefit is actually a benefit, is a strict mark against the class as a whole.

The priest also gains Channel Energy at a reduced rate from the cleric, starting at 1d6 at 2nd level and capping at 7d6 at 20th level... Which begs the question "Why?" Channel Energy is a mediocre class feature that requires investment just to be usable in combat, and the reduced progression makes that investment somewhat questionable. Now, the plus sides to this ability lie in its variations from the version the cleric gets; first, it gets free action economy upgrades, bumping up to move action activation at 7th level and swift action activation at 14th level. The verbage leads me to believe that similarly to bardic performance, these action economy changes are inclusive and the priest can still use the larger action expenditure if they wish, meaning that their Channel Energy uses need not conflict with other swift action options like their Divine Gift or Quickened spells. The other big perk here is that the priest doesn't end up with increased MADness due to this ability; the priest's Channel Energy is Wisdom-based, just like its spellcasting, rather than Charisma-based like the cleric's. 

Ultimately, I believe that the beneficial variations of this ability outweigh the negative effects of the ability's slower scaling, but I can't help feeling that both Channel Energy and Sacred Bond are somewhat lazy class features. That's not to deride the author; it's possible that word counts or deadlines or both impacted his ability to implement more robust options, but Sacred Bond is mediocre at best, and Channel Energy is a class feature that demands investment to be of real use. Now granted, the 3 bonus feats the priest are all intended to help alleviate the required investment since they're all channel-focused feats, including the essential Selective Channeling feat, but the first bonus feat doesn't kick in until 6th level and the feature lacks the verbage found in classes that intend you to have some easy feat swapping, like the vigilante, to swap in another feat you qualified for at the level you gained it. Given that retraining is both an optional rule and time-consuming, this imposes an awkward burden on the class, and renders the benefit of being able to gain Selective Channeling as a bonus feat essentially moot.

The priest's capstone ability, Hallowed Vessel, renders the priest immune to death attacks and negative levels, ensures that ability damage and drain cannot reduce the priest below 1 in any ability score, and makes it so that the priest does not die until its negative hit point total is in excess of twice its Constitution score, all handy benefits for a squishy caster with a poor Fort save and a d6 hit die.
In addition to the base class, The priest includes two feats and an archetype.

The feats include the almost mandatory and entirely expected Extra Divine Gift for extra uses of the priest's Divine Gift ability, and Powerful Channel, which allows you to boost your channel dice to d10s by channeling as a full round action that provokes an AoO and becoming fatigued for a number of rounds equal to the number of dice in your channel (so, if your channel is 5d6, you can bump to 5d10 in exchange for 5 rounds of fatigue). I don't really like either of these feats. Extra Divine Gift (which refers to itself as "Extra Divine Boon" in its text), is ridiculously good, specifically because Divine Gift is so ridiculously good. I'm not going to take any metamagic feat other than Quicken Spell when I can spend a swift action to pluck whatever metamagic feat I need out of the air, and many other potential bonuses or situations are covered by the wider umbrella of the many other Divine Gift options. Paizo recognized that the vigilante didn't need an "Extra Vigilante Talent" because they had created talents that were actually better than a feat, and I feel like some of that same reasoning applies here. 

There are very few feats that I would choose over getting additional uses of Divine Gift. Powerful Channel suffers from kind of the opposite problem. While yes, I called out the slower scaling of the priest's channel energy as a negative, it's not a negative I'm going to pay a full round action and up to 7 rounds of fatigue (and the accompanying risk of exhaustion if another source that would fatigue me hits) for. As an example: a 5th level priest would go from 2d6 channeled energy (average 7 points of damage/healing) to 2d10 (average 10 points of damage/healing). In exchange for that extra 3 points, you're foregoing the option to option to move, potentially provoking an AoO, and for the next 2 rounds you take a -1 penalty to AC, Reflex saves, melee and ranged attack rolls, CMB, and a -2 penalty to CMD (meaning that things are extra scary if an opponent decides the right move is to grapple the caster). The cleric spell list, even with the addition of three domains, simply doesn't have the flexibility that the wizard spell list does, so the danger these penalties impose is much more immediate than it might be for an arcane caster who would take the same penalties without blinking. More than that, 5th level is one of the last points where there might be any reason to use this feat at all. Come 7th level, you can use a Divine Gift, cast a spell, and channel energy normally for the same action economy without taking any penalty, which leads one to ask "Why risk an AoO and take all those penalties for a nominal 'benefit' that doesn't approximate what I could do anyways? Why spend a feat to do so in the first place?" I could potentially see this feat as being okay for channeling done out of combat, but only if I had no other feats I qualified for and even kind of wanted at that point.

The archetype included herein is the "Chosen of Nature", and the name pretty much spells this one out. You get some nature-themed modifications to your skill list, cast from the druid spell list instead of the cleric spell list, and you gain scaling beast shape / plant shape SLAs in exchange for all your Channel Energy increases from 6th level on. I, personally, consider this a bad archetype. Firstly, Channel Energy goes from a mediocre class feature with some interesting class-specific tweaks to a dead feature. Why not just replace it entirely and bring the SLAs online earlier? We're essentially talking about a weaker version of the druid's wildshape, so it would just make more sense to have a smooth flow of progression along your abilities than to have you be a channeler for 3 levels and then a shapeshifter for the rest of your career. Second, this archetype all but dumps channel energy and yet the bonus feats you get at 6, 12, and 18 are all still dedicated to improving Channel Energy, meaning that these bonus feats are basically as dead as the class feature they modify. 

Finally, this is a class that gets three domains. If I want to play a nature priest, I can grab the Animal and Plant domains and not give up my Channel Energy, while still getting access to some of the beast shape spells. So, I could take this archetype and essentially murder two of my class features in exchange for some SLAs that don't mesh with the rest of my class (you can't use Natural Spell to complete verbal and somatic spell components without actually having the wildshape class feature), or I could keep all of my class features and play a nature caster by grabbing appropriate domains.

So, how to sum up...? While it may seem like I had quite a number of negative things to say about the priest, the majority of these boiled down to things I wanted it to do better, or things that I wanted it to do more of. All the key components of a great class are here, but they feel unpolished, or maybe unfinished, to me. I feel like this class is undeniably better constructed and fits more tropes from outside the immediate D&D/PF franchise than the cleric, but it just doesn't quite fulfill the promise and potential that it hints at.