The Pitfalls of a Specialized Paragon Path

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on May 25, 2010

Choosing a paragon path is one of the most decisive ways that two characters of the same class and race can differentiate themselves from each other. It also lets you better define your character as an individual. Your paragon path lets you better specialize within your class. But some paragon paths offer a much narrower focus of specialization than others. And in recently choosing one of these paragon paths, I realized that they can lead to more problems than players and DMs may realize.

When the Paladin I play in Living Forgotten Realms (LFR) adventures reached level 11, I had a very difficult choice. Before me were 35 paragon paths (I’m playing a Half-elf who multi-classes into Cleric, opening up many doors). After a difficult and time consuming decision-making process, I opted to go with the paragon path Slayer of the Dead.

As it turned out, this was an excellent choice. I faced a lot of undead opponents between levels 11 and 14. But I admit that this was fortunate coincidence. I could have just as easily gone 10 adventures and not fought anything undead at all. And that got me thinking. Some paragon paths provide a way to become extremely specialized. In this example I choose to specialize in battling undead. But what if I had chosen one of the other specialization routes available before me? If I had taken the Demonslayer or Dragonslayer paragon paths I’d have gained powers and abilities that were next to useless for the adventures I played.

As a player you have to ask yourself if it’s worth specializing. In a home game you can work with the DM and make sure that your specialization is appropriate for the campaign. If you’re playing a Fighter or a Ranger and you want to take the Giantslayer paragon path you’d better check with your DM to see if he was planning on pitting the party against giants – otherwise your build becomes a lot less effective. Sure you can still use the powers your paragon path grants you, but if you’re not fighting giants with any regularity then you’ll be less effective and very disappointed. In organized game-play, like LFR adventures, this kind of development with the DM is nonexistent.

The issue of specialization really goes deeper than just playing the odds. If you want to choose a paragon path that gives you a huge advantage when fighting one particular type of opponent then that’s up to you. If you have foreknowledge that the camping will likely put you into situations where you’ll be able to put your newly gotten gains to good use, then so much the better. But is it worth taking the gamble at all?

A Ranger Wyrm-hunter or a Paladin Drangonslayer will have tremendous advantages when the party is up against dragons. In a home game, the DM has the flexibility to use whatever monsters he feels are appropriate. But will he be any more or less likely to include dragons in his encounters just because you’ve chosen to specialize? Some DMs I’ve played with often go out of their way not to put the PCs against the foes they’ll have the easiest time defeating. Or in circumstances when it does happen they’ll provide less XP since the PCs had such a big edge.

This happened in a game I played years ago (still under the 3.5e rules) when multiple divine PCs had powers against undead and elementals. When the adventure the DM was running kept throwing more and more undead and elementals at us and we kept defeating them with little difficulty, he refused to award full XP. I always felt cheated that my decision to specialize actually hurt my reward when all I fought were the foes I could defeat most easily.

Let’s get back to my Paladin for a minute. As mentioned above, I choose the paragon path Slayer of the Dead. The very next adventure I played included three other divine characters capable of dealing radiant damage. Unbeknownst to any of the players, the adventure put the PCs up against nothing but undead. We couldn’t have built a more suitable party if we tried. When I used this PC again it was with a totally new party and I ended up being the only divine character. Again, almost all of the monsters were undead. I showed the undead who was boss and demolished them. The rest of the party didn’t have any sort of special advantage and really struggled.

By using this type of character in this kind of gaming situation I choose to gamble. I knew that many LFR games had undead so I felt that taking this specialized paragon path gave me good odds that I’d see undead often enough to justify the choice. As it turned out, I was right. But had I taken one of the other Paladin paragon paths that specialize against one kind of foe, Demonslayer or Dragonslayer, for example, I’d have been disappointed. I think between levels 11 and 14 I fought one demon and one dragon.

As the DM what do you do when one (or more) of the PCs at your gaming table wants to choose a specialized paragon path? The Paladin wants to become a Demonslayer but you really don’t have any intention of having the party face demons. Do you change your campaign and throw a few demons against the group every now and then just to make the Demonslayer feel like he’s made the right choice?

How does one player’s choice of taking a paragon path with an extremely specialized focus affect the rest of the party? If the Ranger takes the Impilturan Demonslayer paragon path does that mean that the rest of the party is now tethered to that one player’s decisions? Knowing that, should the other players try to take complimentary paragon paths? If the focus of the campaign has revolved around hunting and slaying demons then sure this is a good route for everyone. But if there’s been no indication that this is where the campaign is headed then how much importance should the DM place on this one player’s choice of paragon path.

What are your thoughts on choosing a specialized paragon path? If it’s clear that the party isn’t going to fight dragons should players be barred against paragon paths specializing in defeating them? Should the party as a whole have any say in what paragon path the other players at the table choose? As a DM how much information and direction should you provide to players before they make a decision about their paragon path? Would you ever award less XP to an optimized party or an optimized PC who easily defeats the monster he’s chose to specialize in fighting?

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Bauxtehude May 25, 2010 at 9:35 am

The best way that I’ve seen the transition to paragon path done is to make sure that PCs choose that relate to the choices that they have made in game, and as a DM you wont have many problems helping that PC’s choice make sense. Say the PC has to hit a few paragon path related milestones, they have to take part in a few character defining events such as slaying three powerful giants. If you’re the DM and one of your characters has been gunning for every giant they see for the last 4 levels you’ll be able to come up with plot hooks that include giants. Even giants have families after all…

I kind of like the idea of the giant slayer from left field by the way. The idea that you have a party whose quest is to save the princess from the mighty dragon lord, and this ranger keeps on wanting to take the scenic route through Giantville to do some assault and battery. I guess the guy really doesn’t like giants. But if all your players want to do is fight giants they might as well say screw you and your story line, DM, we’re going murder us some giants. Why would you put nothing but dragons infront of this party? Would you ever kill the dragon just to humour the DM?

It seems like you’re out of luck with LFR though, unless you do a bit of research and figure out which adventures have the kind of monster you’re looking for.

I guess there’s the game balance issue too. Does your adventure assume that everyone in the party is optimized for combat against the throngs of undead you’re throwing at them?

My only advice is to communicate with your players and DM about what you want from the game, after all it is cooperative story telling.
.-= Bauxtehude´s last blog ..D&D Encounters: Halaster’s Lost Apprentice; Session #10 =-.

2 Rhetorical Gamer May 25, 2010 at 11:06 am

Well,

A DM who will punish you for taking specialized Paragon Paths by taking away some of the rewards is not really playing a very fair game, I’d say, but you’re right about the issues of playing specialized PPs…

The main solution though seems to be the campaign. If you are in a home game, your character should already have goals and ideas that shape the choice of paragon path.

For organized games though, I’d say follow the same advice. You’ve played this character for a while, you know what the character wants to be. If you are a little gimped by choosing Demonslayer, well, it’s not awful. And you have a clear identity in the party, so, RP can shape around it.

Whatever you choose, it should be fun for RP, and at least reasonably fun mechanically. I think most new PPs try for this much.

3 Kenneth McNay May 25, 2010 at 11:23 am

I think the paragon path is an excellent way to distinguish oneself as a PC. It can represent an important mark of acheivement. In this sense, I see the choice of paragon path to be more closely tied to roleplay, than to rollplay. And, in considering a group of players that either play from lower levels upward, or gather after reaching paragon levels, this sort of distinction should remain a roleplay aspect.

A group that gathers and encounters a distinguished dragonslayer may very readily want to include that individual in their troupe regardless of whether they are fighting dragons with regularity.

Still, I view this as something that must be integrated into the wholeness of the game. If a player wants to pursue a specialized paragon path, then the DM should be working that into a worthwhile choice (and possibly great benefit) for that player and the group which they are a part of.

It appears that in the forum of LFR, specialized paragon paths are not going to always be the best choice mechanically, and thus might not fill a good roleplay slot either.

4 shimmertook May 25, 2010 at 1:49 pm

I feel like the DM should respond to player’s choices. At a very basic interpretation, I would provide content as a DM the same way I do when reacting to anything the players choose. If they take armor that provides a resistance to one kind of damage, I would make sure to consider that sometimes…but I can’t consider it all the time. And I can’t allow it to steer everything that is placed in the game as a challenge. Same goes for their paragon path. If they choose a Demonslayer PP, and they are 1/5 of the adventuring group, then 1/5 of the encounters the group is challenged by should include demons a good amount of the time. Why not be judicious? They’ll get to dive into what they’ve invested in, while still being challenged by the non-demon enemies. If the entire party invests in demon-slaying, that sounds like a great opportunity to challenge the party. Give them a great majority of demon-slaying combats, but demons have character to them—they’re chaotic and evil. Maybe they learn quickly that the adventurers are particularly suited to their weaknesses, and summon other creatures to their aid. There still has to be a challenge, but make the PCs’ choices matter.

5 Dungeon Newbie May 26, 2010 at 1:34 am

Well, I think that the players should try and take different specializations, with at least one being a “general” monster killer. A party of 5 or 6 following my suggestion should be able to, at the very least, withstand whatever crap the DM throws at them.

6 mc_monte May 26, 2010 at 10:56 am

DMs should try to be open and honest with their PCs, especially as they pick up their PPs and Epic Destinies.

Now, all paragon paths represent a measure of specialization; a rogue who selects Daggermaster is committing his character to wielding a dagger for his entire career; a paladin who selects Champion of Order has more of a single-enemy, one-on-one focus than a Morninglord, who likes to support the party and engage multiple foes.

However, deep specializations — those that center around creature types instead of a general fighting style — are win-and-lose. From a strictly pragmatic standpoint, most of these paths are mediocre; some don’t even perform as well against their “chosen foe” as a more general paragon path. DMs should take note of these “trap paths” and encourage your players to avoid them, re-flavoring other paths as necessary.

For my money, a Dragonslayer ought to be the most dangerous son-of-a-bitch around. This guy takes down dragons, the most powerful — and diverse — beasts in the world — and he hasn’t got tricks he can adapt to any situation?

Which brings the discussion full circle — re-flavoring makes role-play mesh seamlessly with roll-play. Player’s shouldn’t feel guilty about making powerful choices because it “doesn’t fit the RP” — the only person who decides what fits and what doesn’t is you. A little forethought and planning in your character development, frequent talks with the DM over where you want your character to go, and a strong imagination helps you play a character you can enjoy both mechanically and narratively.

7 Volcanic Spider May 26, 2010 at 11:17 am

I think that the specialized paragon paths were put in place specifically for role-playing opportunities, and should be used as such. As any good DM uses PC role-playing for story hooks, the specialization will be, by default, at least tangentially integrated into the main storyline.

If a PCs backstory is that their village was constantly raided by Giant as a child, or that his family had to sacrifice half of their livestock to the local dragon, then selecting the Giantslayer or Dragonslaying paragon paths makes sense for that character. I’m a strong supporter of role-play first, meta-game second. If you try to select your paragon path based on what you *hope* the DM will throw at you, or because you know in advance what type of mosters you will likely be facing, you’ll likely end up disappointed. But, if you’re a paladin who became a paladin because the curse of the undead is abhorrent to you, then selecting a paragon path appropriate for that makes sense. When you run into undead, you will slay them with abandon. When you don’t run into undead, you’ll still do the best you can to help your party succeed–just like a “real” paladin would do in those situations.

Don’t let the game rule your character. Let your character rule the game. Be decisive in your choices, support them, and always move forward. If you have a good DM, he will do his best to integrate your choices into the adventures wherever possible. Just like in real life, your choices will affect the outcome of your actions.

8 Lahrs May 26, 2010 at 1:35 pm

When I run my homebrew, I make my players give me a background of their character. Not only does this help the player, but as the DM I can specialize the campaign to fit each character. All of my players know that they have to share the spotlight, but each player will also get his turn to really shine. Knowing ahead of time the path the player plans on taking, I will make sure they go against suitable monsters and puzzles. If a player takes a flavor skill such as Deep Speech, a not so common language in most campaigns, I will make sure at least once the language will come up during an important setting to let them use their skill where nobody else can.

In my opinion, flavor is something a player takes to add dimension to his character, but does not count as a defining characteristic with game play implications. A paragon path is a defining player characteristic with game play implications and should be treated as such. If a player chooses the Slayer of the Dead path, I will find ways to add undead to the campaign if reasonable. If I do not feel I, as the DM, can make the paragon path worthwhile to the player, I will let them know in advance and help them choose something more appropriate. Everybody needs their day to shine, and if the DM and player cannot work together to make it happen, then the game can be a drag on both.

That is homebrew or any home campaign. I love flavor, customization and role playing, so to me, the choices are nearly endless. When playing in D&D Encounters and LFG, I turn into a min-maxer, and definitely speak to the DM ahead of time to make sure my character build will continue to work throughout the campaign. In most instances, that means not specializing unless your party is completely balanced to compensate for the times you cannot be at your best. It is unfortunate, and I am sure there are better players than me who can make this work, but specializing in those situations means more sitting on the sidelines than playing the character how you envisioned he/she would play.

9 Ameron May 31, 2010 at 12:08 pm

@Bauxtehude
Great feedback, thank you. You bring up an excellent point about cooperative story telling. PCs should work with the DM and even the other players to select a paragon path that works for you, the campaign and the party. Unfortunately this isn’t possible for LFR play so you just have to stay true to the PC.

@Rhetorical Gamer
I think more players need to realize that as the character become more powerful the role-playing becomes that much more important. So I completely agree that the paragon path should not only be in keeping with the character development but be fun to play. The mechanics should be secondary.

@Kenneth McNay
My experience supports your comments. Specialized paragon paths in LFR are so hit and miss they are pretty much avoided all together. But in my home games the players usually work towards a very specific paragon path that makes sense for the character they’ve been developing over the previous 10 levels. The DM has a good idea of where these heroes want to go and can work to bring them there.

@shimmertook
As a DM I’d handle extreme specialization exactly as you’ve suggested. It’s just those darn LFR games that you have to watch out for. But if you’ve played enough LFR to hit level 11 then you should know better than to specialize too much (or be willing to take the risks associated with this choice).

@Dungeon Newbie
General monster killers certainly have versatility, but after 10 levels they can get boring. Sometimes it’s worth taking a very specialized route just to add some flare to the character and to combat on those rare occasions when you actually fight your chosen enemy.

@mc_monte
Excellent comment. I absolutely agree that Dragonslayers should be way more powerful than their paragon path makes them out to be.

@Volcanic Spider
“Don’t let the game rule your character. Let your character rule the game.”
Well said. All the comments keep pointing to paragon path being used as a role-playing tool and not (only) as way to exploit the mechanics to build the super character. Certainly something to think about before taking your next paragon path.

@Lahrs
We recently fell victim to too much preparation and development. We all developed great backgrounds. We also gave the DM constant updates on where we intended to take our characters. And then around level 8 the Arcane Power, Divine Power and Martial Power books started coming out. Suddenly we all wanted to follow new paragon paths and builds presented in the new books. The DM (begrudgingly) let us do what we wanted even though he’d already been leading us towards a goal that was very much geared towards our initial intentions. It’s rare that things work out this way, but it does happen.

I agree that for LFR and D&D Encounters maximized power builds are 100% the way to go.

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