Pathfinder - Class Balance
After playing DnD 3.x and Pathfinder for over half of my life, it has become increasingly apparent that not all classes are created equal. While classes might be mechanically sound and fun to play, the capabilities of those classes might be much less than those of other classes.
A common mistake when people discuss class balance, particularly in games like Pathfinder and DnD, is to focus solely on the character's ability to kill things. This is an easy mistake because combat takes up the lion's share of time in most campaigns, and social encounters typically won't get you killed without first changing into a combat encounter. Instead, I propose that class balance should be determined based on the class's ability to fill one or more roles in a party. Classes which are more powerful can fill more roles, and tend to eclipse other characters during play.
Classes by Tier
Note that these assessments do not account for archetypes. Many archetypes are considerable improvements on their base classes, and many make the base class considerably better or worse, but that information is simply too broad to squeeze into this article.
Capable of doing absolutely everything, often better than classes that specialize in that thing. Often capable of solving encounters with a single mechanical ability and little thought from the player. Has world changing powers at high levels. These guys, if played with skill, can easily break a campaign and can be very hard to challenge without extreme DM fiat or plenty of house rules. These characters tend to eclipse entire parties.
- Arcanist: The Arcanist flirts with the border between Tier 1 and Tier 2. With the Wizard's spell list, and the ability to prepare spells daily, then treat them like the Sorcerer's list of spells known, the Arcanist is a very fun and easy class to play. Unfortunately, the Arcanist gets spell levels at the same rate as the Sorcerer so they fall behind the Wizard every other level.
- Cleric: With medium armor, a huge complement of spells, and no restriction on spells known, the Cleric can do basically everything.
- Druid: With a very unique and well-rounded spell list, the Druid is already a very capable class. The addition of an Animal Companion and Wild Shape allows the Druid to form a one-man party and fill a variety of roles whenever they are necessary.
- Shaman: The Shaman gets an interesting combination of spells and abilities from the Druid and the Witch. With access to the Witch's full Hex list, plus a list of their own, the Shaman is certainly a powerful class. However, the Shaman still doesn't quite compete with the Druid.
- Witch: The Witch gets access to many spells from the Cleric, Druid, and Wizard spell lists, and can supplement the Witch spell list with a Patron.
- Wizard: The Wizard spell list is the best in the game, and allows the Wizard to do essentially anything just by changing their prepared spells every morning.
Has as much raw power as the Tier 1 classes, but can't pull off nearly as many tricks, and while the class itself is capable of anything, no single character can do everything at the same time.
- Oracle: The Oracle is to the Cleric what the Sorcerer is to the Wizard. Functionally very similar, but less powerful because they get new spell levels on level behind..
- Sorcerer: Basically a Wizard limited by their spells known, and they get spells one level behind the Wizard.
- Summoner: Despite being limited to 6th level spells, a short spell list, and a limited number of spells known, the Summoner's Eidolon allows it to a great deal as a single character.
Specialists are capable of doing one important thing very well while still being useful when that one thing is inappropriate, and generalists capable of doing many things, but not as well as classes that specialize in that area. Classes occasionally have a mechanical ability that can immediately resolve an encounter, but this is a rare exception.
- Alchemist: Effectively limited to 6th level spells, the Alchemist can do a great deal, but can't compete with a Sorcerer or Wizard.
- Bard: Bards are fantastically versatile, and can fill nearly any role in the party, but won't excel at those roles as well as classes devoted to that role.
- Skald: Essentially the same as a bard, though somewhat less versatile.
- Hunter: With 2/3 casting, an Animal Companion, and some very fantastic and versatile buffs, the Hunter is a great compromise between the combat prowess of the Ranger and the spellcasting of the Druid.
- Inquisitor: Much like a Bard, the Inquisitor can fill a wide variety of roles, but typically can't compete with classes devoted to that role.
- Investigator: A really interesting class, the Investigator is capable of being very good at a lot of things at the same time, and can deal reliable precision damage without needing to depend on tricks like flanking or invisibility.
- Magus: The Magus is an excellent Striker with a limited amount of skills and utility spells which can keep the Magus relevant outside of combat.
- Warpriest: Somewhere between the Paladin and the Cleric, the Warpriest gets access to both spell lists, giving it a ton of really great options on top of the Warpriest's formidable combat abilities.
Specialists are capable of doing one thing quite well, but often useless when encounters require other areas of expertise, and generalists are capable of doing many things to a reasonable degree of competence without truly shining. Classes rarely have any abilities that can completely resolve an encounter unless that encounter plays directly to the class's focus.
- Adept: Despite being an NPC class, the Adept get a diverse spell list and goes up to 6th level spells. It lacks the skills and class abilities to match a Bard, and the Adept's spell list is extremely sparse, but it still has plenty of excellent options including a lot of essential save-or-suck spells.
- Barbarian: Very good at fighting, but that's about it. The Barbarian skill list is very sparse, and their abilities contribute little outside of combat. Rage Powers are the only thing keeping the Barbarian in Tier 4.
- Bloodrager: The Bloodrager is an exciting combination of the Barbarian's raw muscle and and arcane spellcasters' buff spells. Martial characters are often dependent on support casters to survive and win encounters with Pathfinder's many horrific monsters, but the Bloodrager can quickly and efficiently buff itself without cutting into its damage output.
- Fighter (Martial Master): Martial Master goes a long way to address the Fighter's problem with being pigeon-holed into one combat trick.
- Paladin: The Paladin can heal and fight things, and that's about it. They have the Charisma to serve as a Face, but lack the skill list or skill ranks to do anything effectively outside of combat. The Paladin's spell list includes a lot of very interesting buffs, but most of them are purely buffs to the Paladin's combat abilities, and don't provide any options to address gaps the in the Paladin's skill set.
- Ranger: Despite a sizable pool of skill ranks and a very interesting spell list, the Ranger is almost entirely dedicated to stealth and combat. Archetypes can allow the Ranger to fill additional roles, but they cut into the Ranger's existing abilities, so they're generally a 0-sum option.
- Slayer: The Slayer is a fantastic improvement on the Rogue. With full BAB, better proficiencies, and better access to feats, the Slayer can easily outpace the Rogue in damage output, and with 6+ skill ranks the Slayer can almost match the Rogue's skills.
Capable of doing only one thing, and not necessarily all that well, or so unfocused that they have trouble mastering anything, and in many types of encounters the character cannot contribute. In some cases, can do one thing very well, but that one thing is very often not needed. Has trouble shining in any encounter unless the encounter matches their strengths.
- Brawler: Some archetypes can bump the Brawler up to tier 4, but the Brawler is generally little better than the Fighter and Monk, and shares many of the same problems as its two parent classes.
- Cavalier: The Cavalier is good at combat and can be a Face, but lacks any other abilities which can't be replicated by a low level Cleric or Bard.
- Fighter: The Fighter is the least versatile player class. As their name suggests, all that they can do is fight things. Because Pathfinder rewards specialization over versatility, Fighters tend to pigeon-hole themselves into their favorite tactic in combat. When this trick doesn't work, Fighters are frequently useless. This problem often becomes more severe as the Fighter gains levels and invests more resources in their favorite trick.
- Gunslinger: The Gunslinger has a few skills to be a Face, but is otherwise entirely dedicated to shooting things.
- Monk: The Monk is often listed as tier 6, but the Monk is at least as powerful as the Fighter if you understand how to build a Monk. They also have a few skills which allow the Monk to serve as a Scout.
- Ninja: Basically a Rogue with a Ki Pool. While many of the Ninja's talents give it a leg up over the Rogue, the Ninja has major problems with MAD and sustainability in combat.
- Rogue: The iconic Scout and Striker, the Rogue isn't as effective as one would hope. The Rogue is one of very classes that get Trapfinding by default, and their skill list is huge, but a Rogue simply can't get enough skill ranks to cover all of their bases, and they depend too much on their allies to let them use Sneak Attack for the Rogue to be a truly effective Striker.
- Samurai: Basically a Cavalier with a different flavor.
- Swashbuckler: While certainly flashier and more interesting to play than the generic Fighter, the Swashbuckler isn't notably more effective. Swashbucklers have the same lack of utility and versatility which plagues most martial classes.
Not even good at what they are intended to do. These are generally reserved for NPCs because they are not intended to be used as player classes.
Suggestions for Adjustments
The below table includes suggestions to buff/nerf each class. You might consider adding these adjustments to handle specific players, or you might consider using them as static house rules. The intention is not to use all of these suggestions, but to use one or more per class as you see fit to reach the level of balance that you desire.
|Class||Strong Nerfs||Weak Nerfs||Weak Buffs||Strong Buffs|
|Alchemist|| || || || |
|Arcanist|| || || || |
|Barbarian|| || || || |
|Bard|| || || || |
|Bloodrager|| || || || |
|Brawler|| || || || |
|Cavalier|| || || || |
|Cleric|| || || || |
|Druid|| || || || |
|Fighter|| || || || |
|Gunslinger|| || || || |
|Hunter|| || || || |
|Inquisitor|| || || || |
|Investigator|| || || || |
|Magus|| || || || |
|Monk|| || || || |
|Ninja|| || || || |
|Oracle|| || || || |
|Paladin|| || || || |
|Ranger|| || || || |
|Rogue|| || || || |
|Samurai|| || || || |
|Shaman|| || || || |
|Skald|| || || || |
|Slayer|| || || || |
|Sorcerer|| || || || |
|Summoner|| || || || |
|Swashbuckler|| || || || |
|Warpriest|| || || || |
|Witch|| || || || |
|Wizard|| || || || |