When I taught kids how to play ttrpgs and help them create characters, I would describe the system as divided into three areas: combat, where you swing a sword or shoot an arrow, magic, where you fly and turn invisible and throw fireballs, and skills, which is everything else from knowing things to climbing trees to taking to people. I told them to rank these three things in importance for their character so that one would be their specialty, one would be their backup, and one would be their weakness. These are just their focuses. Everyone can fight, but a librarian mage won’t be as good at it as a hulking barbarian. A battlemage might be talented in a skill or two, but nowhere near as many as a sneaky thief. A lot of kids would complain that they didn’t want any weaknesses, so you can imagine the headaches.
Years later, I found this image. Boy do I wish I had this printed out for the kids to look at.
I’m unfamiliar with the original purpose of the pyramid – a quick look seemed like it was a homebrew set up of some sort, though I’m not sure how it’s related exactly – but it’s a great tool regardless. Normally, you can assign roles to a character like tank, healer, etc. without much issue, but most characters don’t fit 100% within a single one of those.
The 100 types of characters represented in this pyramid cover a lot of character tropes and are all pretty well defined in terms of where they lie. Even if you don’t exactly agree with the precise location of every category, you can use the placements as guidelines.
This post is going to be an overview of how a tool like this can help flush out a character concept into the mechanical bits of a class. I do something like this a lot when I’m taking a character from a game or show or something and ttrpg-ifying them. A lot of times there are clear links between what the source character can do and how a class can emulate that, but not always. When there’s no specific parallel, either because they have too broad an array of abilities or because there are multiple avenues of replicating them, it’s good to step back and see the bigger picture and find the closest match.
But how do you tell what “best” is? How do you quantify nebulous concepts so you can directly compare them? It’s not easy, and it’s certainly not a perfect system. However, that is sort of what I went to college for; I have a science degree in Psychology and an arts degree in Philosophy. The first was full of statistically analyzing all manner of things about people, and people aren’t easy to quantify. The second tries to logically prove and define amorphous concepts like truth and knowledge. For both, you have to delineate all sorts of values as clearly as possible, then rate everything by the same standard. That’s a gross oversimplification, but it gets the idea across.
So let’s do that.
This next bit is an explanation of how each part of this process is measured and why it’s important to define them. If you already know how this works or you just want to see a class get evaluated, you can skip ahead to the “A Place For Everything” section.
I’m sure most people have come across an evaluation form at some point in their lives where you rate something. Usually it’s 1-5 stars, 1-10 stars, Extremely Disagree to Extremely Agree, etc. and you rate food at a restaurant, service performed by a repair person, or something similar. These are subjective things you quantify, but even then it’s general quality being ranked. You can vaguely say you liked one food more than another. But when you delve into less linear comparisons, it becomes a bit more difficult. Even at my job as a teacher, we were evaluated under a program that rated things like “all children are met with a positive and welcoming environment” on a scale of 1 to 5. That’s… less straightforward. In order to actually measure something that is subjective, the easiest way is to define those quantities and qualities first.
Luckily, the way the class pyramid is represented works well. It’s a clear way to show how much of a class’s identity matches each of the three roles. So, first step: define those three roles.
Combat: Abilities that are centrally about damage – including accuracy and armor increases, types of damage dealt, amount of damage dealt, etc. – as well as abilities directly related to actions in combat – like positioning, applying status ailments, etc.
Magic: Abilities that are fundamentally supernatural or spellcasting-related in some way, i.e. flying, summoning, transmogrification, hypnotizing, etc.
Skills: Abilities that are mundane – meaning not supernatural or otherwise requiring suspension of disbelief about how the world works – and are less concerned with damage than with utility or support, such as knowledge, athletic prowess, mobility, stealth, etc.
Unfortunately, Skills comes across as “anything not combat or magic” but hopefully it will be clear as we proceed.
We’re going to rank each on a scale of 1 to 10 on three main factors: how many role related abilities a class gets, how much the class excels at the role compared to others, and how important the role is to the core identity of the class.
Now, going back to the quantitative measurements, I’m sure most people get the concept of this easily enough. However, if you asked a dozen people to rank the same things, you’ll get a dozen different answers. In psychological scientific research, it’s important to define everything, even something as simple as a 1-10 scale. So here we go:
1: The class practically ignores this area. Characters need a lot of investment to have any sort of specialization here, and even then they probably won’t be that terrific at it.
2-3: The class has a couple abilities built in or a few feats that help flush out this area, but usually only in specific circumstances or thematically relevant ways. A character of this class focusing in this area is likely very niche, and it probably can’t do it as well as some other classes.
4: The class has a fair number of ways to incorporate this facet of characters, but it’s rarely the central theme of such characters. This can make it easy to emphasize or ignore depending on the build.
5-6: The class is fairly rooted in this area. Even focusing on something else will leave this facet somewhat potent. You might be able to avoid using this area, but it’d be difficult to do so completely.
7-8: The class has a large amount of its toolkit related to this part of a character. You can’t really remove it from the identity of a character of this class, though other things can still take priority over this with a good deal of effort.
9-10: The class prioritizes this area so much that you will be hard pressed not to focus on it even if you try. The amount of tools here outweighs everything else.
MEASURE TWICE, CUT ONCE
We have what everything means, from the roles to the ranks. But there’s one more part of this process to go over before applying it to examples: how do you apply it?
Ever see someone who takes a survey and just says everything is 10/10 to get through it quickly? Not very helpful, especially when the point of the survey is to contrast things being rated. In order to control for this, I’m using the following rule: each class has a total ‘budget’ of 11 or 12 points distributed from 1-10 on the facets of Combat, Magic, and Skills.
The wiggle room of 11 or 12 is to allow for gray area in identification since the classes being ranked will frequently vary widely. Often a class can have abilities that fit under multiple areas, like a method to combine a skill check to perform a utility effect while dealing damage. Other times a class’s role differs immensely based on its path (think of Polymath vs. Warrior muses for bard). Only using 11 points represents this variability by not pushing the class more to one end than necessary. The point “floats” between multiple roles. For example, a 5–4–2 spread isn’t inherently weaker than a 5–5–2 spread; it means the first class is likely to change between individual character builds.
Once you assign your 11 or 12 points, you can find the place on the chart. Start on the opposite side and count that many layers towards the peak. That row is how close the class is to that role. Do that for all three roles, and there should be a single place on the chart that lies on all three lines. An example of this can be seen in the next section.
I’m going to make a chart just for Pathfinder classes, but you can use the original pyramid as well with similar results. Once you triangulate which type of character you get with the rankings, you can get an idea of what focuses they might have.
Keep in mind the concepts immediately surrounding it can also help, in case the definitions don’t quite match what you want. For example, in the original pyramid, you might land on Beastmaster while making a character that Horizon Walker is a much better fit for. Just go with that. It’s not a hard and fast rule.
A PLACE FOR EVERYTHING
Eventually I’m going to rank every one of the classes in Pathfinder 2e, but this time around I’m going to just go over Bard in detail. The rest will come later in less extensive detail.
To measure where Bard ranks in each area, we need to check the various abilities central to the class as well as what options the class can be picked up. Core features, proficiencies, and abilities will be a bigger part of middle ranks as that’s where you have pieces of its identity that you can’t completely remove but don’t have to focus on necessarily. Feat options shore up low scores and high scores, either being things you can kinda do or stuff you can really specialize. A quick list for Bard would be:
- Compositions: Every bard gets compositions, notably inspire courage. You can also add a bunch or augment them with different feats. Focus cantrips definitely make it so their always accessible. You can focus on other things, but you’ll always have compositions as an option.
- Skill Tricks: Tied with the second most skill proficiencies of the core classes and several feats to help, Bard has solid skill options. Coupled with Polymath and Enigma stuff, you have lots of skill tricks,.
- Party face and/or support: Social skills are easy to do as a charisma caster, but even moreso for Bard with all their various tricks. Likewise, any caster can do some buffing, debuffing, or control, but Bard has more built-in options than any other.
Now let’s look at each of the three categories.
- Combat: 8 HP, light armor, and a handful of martial weapons places Bard solidly in the “meh” level of combat. Even with the combat muse, there’s not a lot of spectacular stuff you can do. You can focus hard on it and do a passable job, but even then you’re going to be relying on magic and skills to do your best. This is a 2, maybe 3 at best.
- Magic: Even though Bard doesn’t have a Sorcerer’s bloodline spells or a Wizard’s school spells, having composition cantrips makes spellcasting a very central part of the class. Lots of feats add new compositions or augment spellcasting, meaning you can lean hard into magic if you want to, but you can also do other things just fine. Overall, magic will probably be about half of what a bard does in one way or the other, so we’ll give this a 6.
- Skills: With automatic, pathway, and bonus skills, just about every core class starts with 4+int skills trained. Rogue as the skill master obviously gets more, and Wizard gets one fewer (though being Int based only technically). Ranger and Bard sit with second most at 6+int instead. Two of the three class paths emphasize certain skills, and a large number of feats build off of these, albeit mostly for Occultism, Performance, or Recall checks. This lands at a 4; easy to build into, but not always necessary.
Looking back over things, we have a spread of C2–M6–S4. Magic is the strongest at a 6, acting as a major part of any build. Skills stands at a 4 with lots of support but not so central you have to include it every time. Combat barely registers with a 2, needing a lot of focus and outside help to really be viable.
There are actually quite a few ways you can use this information. You can use a class’s ranking to see if it fits your character idea. If you want to play a certain class but its ranking doesn’t really fit, you know how much you need to focus your feats on specific options or archetypes in order to find a good balance. You can compare two classes’ rankings to see which more easily excels in one area or another. If you find a class lacking in one area that you want to improve in, you can find another class that matches what you want.
Or, as we’ll see in the next couple posts, we can find a void in the pyramid that needs to be filled.
- Filling in the BlanksI went over a method you can use to “mathematically” categorize a character concept or class. However, the class pyramid isn’t limited to this use. It can be a very versatile tool if you know how to use it.
- Make Love, Not WarlockLast in our trio of pseudo-warlocks uses the Psychic class. While there’s no exact copy of eldritch blast, Psychics are the superstars of cantrips and adding bonus effects on your spells.
- I CAST SWORD!Magus is all about combining spells and martial prowess, perfect for a Blade Warlock. Their signature ability Spellstrike has you attack a foe with a weapon and unleash a spell against them all at once.
2 thoughts on “The Trifecta”