Gandalf, as a Pathfinder build

One of the common activities that I see on the gaming boards I tend to frequent is the desire expressed by a multitude of gamers to recreate in the game rules system, a favorite literary, movie or video game character. While there are dozens of such figures that are discussed on those boards, there are only a few that are repeatedly and constantly recreated by players for their games. Here is a short list, more or less in the order of popularity, of those figures I’ve seen addressed in this way:

  • Drizzt, the reformed Drow swordmage
  • Link, from “Legend of Zelda”
  • Merlin
  • Batman (yes, Batman is definitely in the top five)
  • Conan, the Barbarian
  • Aragorn
  • Iron man (yep, seriously, something about his armor I think…)
  • Dr. Who
  • Catwoman (is it a coincidence that one of the most popular female figures is also somewhat morally ambiguous?)
  • Gandalf

Etc. This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive list, just a short demonstration of what sorts of figures gamers like to “recreate.”

So, the latest example of this is a thread going on right now about Gandalf and how you would build Gandalf as a Pathfinder character.

There appear to be three basic ways to accomplish this goal, and they appear to be more or less mutually contradictory.

The first approach (the one I would take) is to look at what Gandalf actually does as a character in Lord of the Rings and figure out what sort of Pathfinder build could accomplish more or less the same things. Using this approach you look at Gandalf’s skills, powers and abilties and duplicate them as closely as possible with Pathfinder skills, powers and abilties. What you realize in this approach is that Gandalf is pretty lame as a Pathfinder character. Most of the things he does with his magic are comparable to Pathfinder cantrips (like prestidigitation, spark or light, just as examples) or else relatively low level spells (like scorching ray, produce flame, etc). The most powerful magical things he does in the entire series of books is comparable to a lightning bolt or fireball. You could argue that the single most powerful spell he attempted, one which almost totally exhausted him, was the “word of command” he attempted to use to block the Balrog after his “hold portal” spell had been counterspelled. That spell was so powerful that the attempt to counter it resulted in the total destruction of Balin’s tomb room, and the collapse of a small section of the Mines of Moria. But in the end Gandalf’s demonstrated magical prowess seems to be more or less in the range of a level 5-7 spellcaster. And even then many of the most common spells available for that level of spellcaster (levitation, flight, invisibility) are far beyond Gandalf’s abilities. So in this analysis Gandalf ends up being represented as a fairly low level Pathfinder character.

The second approach (the one I see most people take) is to use the following logic: “Gandalf is the most awesome magic user in Lord of the Rings, he’s practically a demigod, so therefore he should be represented as a Pathfinder epic character or demigod”. This approach ends up with Gandalf being described as a very high level wizard, cleric or druid, usually with some levels of a martial class to allow him to be a melee fighter as well. Of course this approach totally ignores the reality that Pathfinder spellcasters of that level routinely fly, turn invisible, teleport, grant wishes, etc. So Gandalf appears to be a super high level character who for some unknown reason, only uses very low level spells and abilities. This creates such a sense of cognitive dissonance in my mind that it is incomprehensible to me how someone can argue this way, but as I said, this is the most common way to do it.

The final approach is to suggest that Gandalf is not possible to model as a player character, and instead should be modeled using the monster/NPC rules. In that approach Gandalf is usually represented as a celestial outsider with specific spell-like powers and the ability to cast certain spells, plus it allows him to have martial abilities in addition to his magical powers without having to construct complex multi-classed characters. This approach actually works OK for me, but even when people take this approach they tend to make Gandalf an epic level NPC with awesome cosmic powers, again in complete disregard for the limited amount of power Gandalf actually demonstrates in the book.

So, all of that to ask this, what would your approach to this exercise be? How would you define Gandalf in a Pathfinder world?

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8 thoughts on “Gandalf, as a Pathfinder build

  1. Ok, Just to let everyone know, I love Tolkien’s works. I have read them many time and even listen to lectures that dive down deep into the books and stories.

    I like your last method. Gandalf really is an outsider. He is one of the Maia. One of the beings that came to Middle-Earth with the god-like Valar. So his powers are limited by the universe that he is in.

  2. mtn, I tend to agree, but the problem with defining Gandalf that way is that it makes it very hard to actually PLAY Gandalf since most GMs won’t allow NPC builds (particularly outsiders with spell-like powers and no class levels) to be player characters. As a GM I would probably allow some sort of fluff to allow a Gandalf PC to be an outsider with a backstory and the potential to add class levels, but many GMs would not.

    • I guess I would never actually play Gandalf. I think of him as an NPC. If a player of mine wanted to play a Gandalf-like character then your first option would be best. I know it is not Gandalf but if you want the feel of Gandalf in your character it is the best you can do.

  3. Oh… and just to clarify, if I remember correctly, the Maia are part of the Valar. I think you are thinking of the Ainur, which were the highest ranking and most powerful Valar. The Maia were more or less the servants of the Ainur as I recall, but both together are called “Valar.” Gandalf, Saruman and the other “wizards” of LotR were sent by Manwe, I think, to provide guidance and counsel for the free people of Middle Earth to help defend against Sauron after the Ainur defeated Morgoth and imprisoned him. There’s a bit of canonical discrepancy in the Tolkien mythos around Gandalf’s purpose. Gandalf himself says that his purpose was to confront and defeat Sauron, but in fact Saruman was originally the leader of the White Council and that was supposed to be his job. It’s not clear if Gandalf means that he adopted that responsibility when he deposed Saruman or if he is suggesting that was always his mission even when Saruman was supposedly the leader of the Maia in middle earth.

    Incidentally, if I understand it properly, the Balrog was also a Maia, one that was originally a servant of fire, but was “cloaked in shadow” by Morgoth when the Balrogs joined Morgoth, presumably to protect them from detection by the other Ainur. So if you go back to the very beginning of the Tolkien universe Gandalf and the Balrog may well have been drinking buddies before Melkor became Morgoth…

  4. I’ve heard this debate before. Here’s a link with someone analyzing all magic used by Gandalf and calling him 5th level, possibly even lower: http://www.therpgsite.com/showthread.php?t=7338

    I have actually felt that some of the most powerful ‘good’ characters in LotR deliberately withhold their full power. Galadriel, for example. Age seems to grant further and further power to elves, and Galadriel is as almost as old as HUMANITY (seriously, in the Silmarillion she gets mentioned in passing several times, the subtext I pick up from it is she had to be Badass to survive so long). She has telepathy, some sort of ability to see the future, and maybe remote scrying too. Sauron is the only other character that can do 2 or more of those, and his personal combat power is depicted as off the charts. If Galadriel picked up a sword and walked up to the Black Gate, I honestly think she might win. So why doesn’t she? Really, why not all the elves? All we really have as an answer is that their time has passed, so Men have to save the world this time. It’s like a parent making a kid clean up their mess, not because the parent can’t (indeed, they might do a better job) but because they want the kid to learn how.

    Sorry, kind of tangented there. My point, I think, is that while Gandalf might have more power than a 5th-level wizard, he only USES that much power. And that’s all we can really base a build on. For the approach I would use, are we making a PC or an NPC? Do we care more about playability or authenticity? To make a playable PC, get yourself a 5th-level magus, they can actually fight worth a darn. But the Outsider method is more accurate to what Gandalf really is in the full lore and history of LotR, it is just more appropriate to an NPC. Which really is appropriate, because that’s what he is in the story. Not the hero, but the mentor and guide to the party of normal mortal PCs.

    The real problem here is the different scales. DnD-based systems can represent a world like Lord of the Rings, but they are NOT good at it! DnD assumes that the world has a significant population of magical creatures, magic-using humanoids in large numbers, and a distribution of NPCs all the way up to very high levels. None of these assumptions are true in the LotR universe. There are a handful of magical creatures (dragons, ents, the nazgul mounts, aaaaand…can’t think of any others offhand). There are, like, 5 or 6 ‘wizards’. in the entire world, and Gandalf is probably the most powerful. There is one evil mage guy. The only thing really ‘magical’ in abundance is the elves. It is always described in subtle ways, but basically elves seem to be like DnD dragons, they get stronger as they age. If you want to run LotR with the DnD rules set, you have to restrict the level cap to 6 or 8 or so (the Epic 6th variant might work well actually), you probably want to reduce the abundance of spellcasters, and you reduce your available enemies to orcs, goblins, humans, trolls, oliphaunts, a couple dragons, and everyday wild animals.

  5. I concur with most of that silent, but with some caveats.

    There are actually quite a few magical creatures in LotR. They are just mostly not involved in the events of the book, perhaps for reasons like you suggest Galadriel doesn’t get her full metal jacket on (although that might well be pretty cool). Among the magical creatures that come to mind are Tom Bombadil, Goldberry, Beorn, the storm giants, trolls, giant intelligent eagles, undead hordes living beneath mountains, mountains themselves (Caradhras?), giant spiders, talking ravens, barrow wights, living rivers that rise up against evil…. quite a lot actually.

    And there’s a lot more magic in the world than it appears at first glance too. Besides the rings and swords that everyone knows the list of magic items I can come up with includes (but is not limited to):

    The hobbit’s barrow-wight daggers which had the power to pierce and slash undead flesh.
    The self-untying rope.
    Cloaks of near-perfect camauflage
    River boats that will not capsize (one even survived the trip over the Falls of Rauros)
    The mirror of Galadriel
    The stone walls of Orthanc
    Aragorn’s brooch which appears to contain Arwen’s immortal essence
    Gargoyle wardens who set off alarms when breached
    Force fields which surround entire keeps
    The Arkenstone of Thrain (although its magic powers are never explained)
    Legalos’s bow
    Bard the Bowman’s black arrow
    Even Eowyn’s sword appeared to have the ability to kill the witch king, a power normal weapons were said to lack.

    But I do agree that Middle Earth is a low magic world. But people tend to overlook the surprising number of magical items that Tolkien introduces in plain sight.

  6. That…really is a lot! Some of those are overlook-able, but the gargoyles, the Arkenstone, and the undead-killing weapons are major plot points. The undead thingies and eagles too (but are the eagles actually magical?). To borrow a term I heard somewhere, maybe LotR isn’t ‘low magic’ so much as ‘subtle magic’. Or even, just not ‘magic missile’ direct combat magic.

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