Saturday, August 28, 2010

Expanded Class Feature 6: Binder

Class: Binder

Source: Tome of Magic

And now, we come to the last of the three classes (and three systems) from Tome of Magic. After the mediocrity that is Shadowcaster and the failure of the Truenamer, this final class, the Binder, is… actually quite good, in most respects. And it actually got some real support. Web supplements, an extra vestige in Dragon Magic, some Dungeon/Dragon articles. There’s a list in the Consolidated Binder Guide, though some of the links are broken.

How it Works:
Roll a charisma check. If you succeed, you get superpowers. If you fail, you still get superpowers.

In more detail, pact magic works by making pacts with vestiges. You spend a minute to perform a ritual that summons some spirit from beyond, haggle with it, and get powers from it for the day. These powers can be things like supernatural abilities, bonus feats, proficiencies, damage reduction, stat/skill boosts, and so on. Most of these effects are continuous or at will, but many of them have a five-round recharge period. For example, Amon (one of the first-level vestiges) grants you 60’ darkvision, fire breath that deals [level]d6 damage (with a five-round recharge period, reflex for half), and a natural gore attack in the form of goat horns.

In general, the abilities that vestiges grant you are supernatural abilities, meaning they have no verbal or somatic components, ignore spell resistance, and depending on the ability, you may be able to use them without anyone notice that you’re the source.

You make a binding check as a part of the ritual, rolling 1d20 plus your charisma modifier plus your binder level, and every vestige has its own binding DC. Regardless of the result, you still get the vestige’s powers, but if you fail, that means you made a poor pact and the vestige also has an influence on you both physically and mentally (actually, the physical influence happens no matter what, but you can usually suppress it if you succeed). Taking Amon as an example again, if you fail your binding check, you become surly and irritable, and because of Amon’s hatred of all things bright and orderly, you’re forced to make a save against any spell from the Fire, Sun, or Law domains, even if they’re beneficial. Also, you grow goat horns and cannot hide them (at level 2, you get the ability to hide the horns if you make a successful binding check). The distinction between a good pact and a poor pact also influences certain other abilities.

And that’s essentially it for pact magic itself; most of the rest is just how specific vestiges and class features work.

However, there is one other annoying aspect worth mentioning. Special requirements. Some vestiges require, say, five ranks in Knowledge: Religion or the ability to speak Giant or having once stolen a candy bar without ever apologizing in order to bind them. Little things, mostly. My problem isn’t so much the mechanical impact, but the fact that you have to go through every vestige you ever intend to use to make sure you’ll actually be able to bind them. And there is not a convenient compilation of special requirements that you can just glance at, nor any other convenient resource organizing vestiges. It’s a general failing of the books; sifting through vestiges sucks. You can take a feat to ignore special requirements, but that’s just a tax to avoid a nuisance.

Fluffy Bits:
Remember the fluff for the Warlock? Gain power through a pact with some eldritch horror. The Binder is similar, but instead of having haggled with Cthulhu once on page two of your character’s backstory in order to gain power for the rest of their career, you’re haggling with the otherworldly horrors on a daily basis to maintain your powers.

This isn’t like signing your soul over to Asmodeus or some fey queen giving you a gift, or even any sort of higher power deigning to deal with those lowly mortals. Rather, you’re dealing with beings that were once great, powerful, or otherwise significant, who are of such cosmic significance that they can never fully fade away, but who have fallen so far from the height of their power that they can no longer directly affect the multiverse proper. Hence, vestiges. They each have their own stories and aspects, but they mostly follow a similar format. Some being (possibly mortal) of considerable power/significance with major character flaw X gets destroyed horribly for said flaw and gets consigned to the void. You’re not sealing deals with the mightiest creatures in the multiverse at the height of their power. You’re making deals with cosmic losers who barely exist and are desperately grasping at any chance to affect reality. And they’re what co-op your brain if you fail your binding check. Sweet.

Also, apparently quite a few of the vestiges are throwbacks that’ll test your D&D lore, like Acererak, the demilich from ye olde Tomb of Horrors. This is what I'm told; I'm not exactly up on all that lore.

So, a Binder is someone who knows the secret knowledge needed to contact these vestiges, at which point the Binder offers them a chance to be relevant again in exchange for borrowing their power for a while.

Oh, and they default to being classified as heretics, which is always fun.

Crunchy Bits:
Okay, as usual, we’ll start with the skeleton, move on to the secondary features, and end at the main course.

Medium BAB, strong fortitude/will, d8 HD, 2+ skill points with a list consisting largely of the scholarly and diplomatic skills, simple weapons, light armor. They gain a few bonus feats that can be used to gain higher armor proficiencies, and some vestiges grant better weapon and armor proficiencies (though relying on vestiges for those proficiencies does rather limit you).

So, we’re basically looking at a Cleric skeleton, which accurately describes how a Binder is expected to run much of the time. They can do self-buffing melee with supernatural support abilities quite well.

At second level, you gain Pact Augmentation; when you make a pact, you select a little perk from a list, like DR 1/- or +5 HP or +1 AB. This bonus applies whether or not you make your binding check, which seems odd to me; this feature seems like it should be a reward for making your binding check, but that’s no big deal. As you level up, you can select more augmentations, to a maximum of five at level 20, and they stack with themselves, so if you select the AB boost, you can get +5 AB from it at level 20.

At the same level, you get Suppress Sign. If you succeed at your binding check, this ability lets you hide or show your vestiges’ physical signs as a swift action. Handy if you don’t want to be burned as a commiemutanttraitor. If you fail your binding check, well… I hope you like that face on your torso.

Bonus feats at levels 4, 11, and 18 are standard fare. You can pick proficiencies, those useless +2/+2 skill feats no one takes unless it’s a prereq, or pact magic feats.

Then comes Soul Guardian at level 6. At this point, your vestiges start protecting your brain (and your generic soul/life force). This starts with immunity to fear, then goes on to Slippery Mind (which is far more useful with strong will saves than it is for a Rogue), immunity to negative levels/energy drain, and full on Mindblank. This functions as long as you’re bound to a vestige, regardless of the outcome of the pact. (Again, it seems like it should be the reward for a good pact. Again, no biggie.)

And of course, there’s Soul Binding. You start out with the ability to bind one first-level vestige at level 1, and advance to the ability to bind four vestiges up to 8th level at level 20. Now, how to tackle this beast…

Remember that old tagline for Othello (the game)? A minute to learn, a lifetime to master. Yeah, that sums up the way soul binding works. At its core, it’s very simple, but the Binder is quite possibly the most complicated class in the game to put to use. This is not because it only functions if you’re using some esoteric and exacting build- far from it. However, the Binder’s abilities come almost entirely from the vestiges, which are extremely diverse, and you can swap them out every day, so you really have to be on your A game and really have to know which vestige does what and pick the right one for any given situation. This is even more important than for a Wizard preparing spells. A Wizard might pick twenty spells, all of which are pretty powerful and general-purpose. You’re probably picking two vestiges with a fairly specialized role that you’ll be spamming all day. If you choose poorly, you’re useless. And unfortunately, a lot of vestiges tend to fall into this pattern where they’re more of a side dish than a main course, which can leave you with all kinds of awesome secondary abilities but no central features to take advantage of.

Also, a lot of your best abilities (especially your save-or-be-beaten abilities) are only usable once every five rounds, so if you haven’t planned out something useful to do those other four rounds and don’t secure the battle in one round, you’re useless again.

That said, the vestiges are immensely flexible covering melee to area damage to scouting to diplomacy to healing (Buer is an infinite healing pool; Cure Minor Wounds at will). If you can master your vestiges and- more importantly- your combinations of vestiges, you can adapt to nearly any circumstance and shore up the party in nearly any weak area (though 2+ skill points per level from a decent but not spectacular list limits your skill monkeying).

And unfortunately, that’s not something you can get a lot of help with, just as Batman-caliber Wizard spell preparation isn’t something you can really help someone learn. However, since you can bind a vestige within two minutes (one minute to draw the seal, one to make the pact), you can leave a vestige slot blank for later, or take the Expel Vestige feat so that you can swap a vestige out once as the day goes on, as needed.

There is, of course, the alternate option of building around a specific combination of vestiges and specifically binding that combination at every opportunity, but that largely misses the point of the class. (Except when you’re the DM making NPCs, in which case it’s the way to go and makes it considerably easier to make memorable and effective opponents.)

It seems like a lot of these usage sections can begin and end with “Know your X,” but it’s critically important to know your vestiges. Unfortunately, slipshod organization and editing don’t help. There’s not a single chart on the vestiges that’s actually any good. Expect to make your own lists. And do look into some of the vestiges from outside Tome of Magic; their inclusion makes you a lot more effective. Zceryll’ summoning ability is extremely useful, for example.

It becomes far more important to know your vestiges at higher levels, when you can bind multiple vestiges simultaneously and instead of being worried about how a single vestige works on its own, you’re worried about how multiple vestiges work together, how they complement each other. If you can’t manage combinations, you’re liable to lag. Also, keep in mind that just because a vestige is lower-level doesn’t mean it’s necessarily worse; they tend to scale fairly well (Naberius may be a first-level vestige, but he’s still the go-to social vestige for pretty much your whole career). Yes, if you can bind three vestiges of up to fifth-level, you can bind three fifth-level vestiges if you want, but odds are there’re lower-level vestiges that are more appropriate and more effective.

Now, then. Stats. Charisma determines your binding check and the DC to save against your myriad supernatural abilities. This, of course, makes charisma… entirely optional. This is pretty much your first big, stylistic choice. The two main approaches to a Binder are to either pump charisma through the roof to ramp up those save DCs and rely on save-or abilities as your bread and butter, pretty much abandoning all hope of being remotely decent at melee, or to go with a more modest charisma (possibly even dumping it outright) in favor of stronger melee stats. After all, even if you fail your binding check, that really only means you suffer the physical/personality influences; you still get full powers and class features.

There are vestiges that work for both routes, but in general, the high-charisma route is stronger at higher levels where you get the really shiny vestiges and the melee route is better at lower levels (where melee’s more effective anyways).

In either case, intelligence is fairly important; you don’t get many skill points, and some of them will be tied up in meeting your spirits’ prerequisites. Also, your skill list is pretty good, including all the social skills, making you a good face. Especially if you bind Naberius. Just resist the temptation to use his Persuasive Words power to order folks to kneel before Zod.

And then, you have feats/skills. The hard part is, as a Binder, you have two sets of elements working in tandem; your vestige abilities, which are modular and can be swapped out, then your standard feats and skills, which are fixed. This becomes a challenge in that you need a permanent array of feats to support a dynamic array of vestige abilities, which goes right back to “know your vestiges.”

And as a final note on usage, remember how earlier I mentioned that a lot of vestiges tend to bring great secondary abilities but lack a solid main course? Well, that lends itself quite well to one of my favorite variants; gestalt. For those not familiar with it, gestalt is a variant rule from Unearthed Arcana that essentially lets you take full features from two classes simultaneously. I could go on about gestalt for quite a while (and it’s good fodder for another post), but suffice it to say, Binders are a great class in gestalt. They go with pretty much anything, since there are vestiges for every occasion.

Tremendous flexibility
Nigh at-will abilities
Fundamentally simple
Solid skill list with all the social skills

Jack of all trades, master of none
If you bind the wrong vestige, you’re liable to be useless
Complicated to make work well
A failed binding check can mean you go around for the day with your skin turned inside out and an intense craving for fried baby.

Now, I’m gonna do something I’m not planning on doing often. Pass judgment on Tome of Magic.

So, is Tome of Magic worth it? Honestly, not really unless you’re a completionist. There are three things in ToM. Pact magic, shadow magic, and truenaming. Truenaming is an abysmal flop. Shadow magic is barely salvageable despite having some decent ideas. And pact magic? Pact magic is awesome. Awesome enough to warrant ToM’s existence and then some, and normally I’d say it’s reason enough to justify it, except… there’s Secrets of Pact Magic.

I pimp the Hell out of this book, but that's only because it is awesome, easily rating among the best 3.5 sourcebooks ever. Imagine Tome of Magic if it were three hundred pages on pact magic, but awesomer. That’s Secrets of Pact Magic. Honestly, as much as I like the class, I only really used the Binder a couple times before I got Secrets of Pact Magic. I haven’t used the Binder since.

Remember how earlier I mentioned that Binders tended to get great secondary abilities but lack a solid main course? Yeah, Secrets of Pact Magic fix that. Remember how I said binding goes with everything? Secrets of Pact Magic runs with that. It has eight base classes (plus an extra in a web enhancement and four more from Villains of Pact Magic, for a total of thirteen), two of which are variants of, “I bind spirits and I do it better than anyone,” and the rest have more limited binding ability alongside more solid class features that serve as a base (well… plus the Exorcist and Templar from Villains of Pact Magic, which are rather anti-binding). The first class in the book? A Monk that doesn’t suck. Pugilism with supernatural spirit-binding action. There’s the roguelike Foe Hunter, the self-explanatory Pact Warrior, and that’s just the classes.

More spirits (rather than vestiges), more interesting spirits, much better organization (hallelujah), loads of pact magic feats, organizations a la Complete Champion (something I like, but probably wouldn’t use prominently) complete with scorecards- one of the organizations’ll even promote you for disintegrating people! Yay! And that’s just the tip of the iceberg; this is one dense tome.

Now, admittedly, there are a few balance issues to keep your eyes on; the odd no-save daze effect and the like (the author really underestimated how debilitating daze is), a few things that could stack to ridiculous extremes, but just slap a save on it, toss in a, “That doesn’t stack with itself,” and tweak a bit here and there and it’s some awesome stuff.

So, in what’s liable to be a move no one else is interested in, we add the Secrets of Pact Magic classes to the list, plus one from web enhancements and four from Villains of Pact Magic. That’s Empyrean Monk, Exorcist, Foe Hunter, Muse, Occult Priest, Pact Warrior, Ravaged Soul, Rookblade, Soul Weaver, Spirit Binder, Templar, Unbound Witch, and Warbinder. So, let’s start with my least favorite pact-making class (possibly until I give Villains of Pact Magic a better once-over). Least favorite, and I still like it. Next week, we’ll start with the Foe Hunter. Guess what they do. (Don’t worry, we’ll get back to WotC classes for at least a week afterward.)

Note, I would start with the Spirit Binder as a direct analogue to the Binder, but there's not exactly a whole lot to talk about; they can bind more spirits than anyone and get a lot of bonus feats, but that's about it, so I'm not gonna make them the first class feature.

Remaining classes: Ardent, Artificer, Crusader, Divine Mind, Dread Necromancer, Empyrean Monk, Erudite, Exorcist, Foe Hunter, Incarnate, Lurk, Muse, Occult Priest, Pact Warrior, Psychic Rogue, Psychic Warrior, Ravaged Soul, Rookblade, Soulborn, Swordsage, Soul Weaver, Spirit Binder, Templar, Totemist, Unbound Witch, Warblade, Warbinder.

Next Week: Foe Hunter


  1. Hey, mind posting a link to the web enhancement you mentioned for "spirits of pact magic"?

  2. I give some links in my How it Works: Pact Magic article, but here's the official site for Secrets of Pact Magic: