There are two goals that every Pathfinder designer strives for when making new player content, particularly classes; balance and versatility. If you look closely, I bet almost all player complains (or at least most the ones I've read on the Paizo.com forums) come down to not being happy with the interplay of these two ideas.
Making a class balanced, and making a class versatile, sounds like a straight-forward concept, yet it can get bogged down pretty quickly when it comes to the specifics of individual playstyle. The fighter, for example, is supposed to represent the height of in-combat versatility, yet all it takes is a game more focused on dialogue and skill checks to make that player feel useless. Likewise the Rogue, considered by many to be the height of out-of-combat versatility, can find herself very un-versatile in practice, as many players feel the need to dedicate all those skill points to only traditional thieving pursuits (stealth, sleight of hand, disable device, etc.,) and in a combat-focused game the rogue often finds herself reduced to being a one-trick pony (flank enemy, sneak attack, rinse and repeat.)
So when you're throwing out something as big as the magic rules themselves and building them again from the ground up, balance and versatility become all-mportant, yet also very elusive beasts. How powerful is too powerful? How focused is too focused? And how will these ideas interact with a variety of playstyles, some of which you might not even have experienced yet?
We're almost at the point with the Spheres of Power classes where we can't improve on them anymore until they've been through a bit more focused and rigorous playtesting. And as I look down at our work, I find myself asking why we made the choices we did, especially as they relate to those classes that mechanically or thematically favor one sphere over another. Why is this class a mid-caster, while this other one is a high-caster? And how do we decide how many talents to give them?
In some cases, we give different classes different balancing systems not because they couldn't use the same mechanics, but so we can see each possible system in play together to compare and contrast the different options. So partially for my own benefit and partially for the benefit of anyone who wants to see inside a designer's head, I wanted to go over why we've made the choices we've made with some of our specialists, as we take these classes from the drawing board to the gaming table to see how they work.
The Elementalist: The elementalist is a combat specialist, pure and simple. With class features that improve the Destruction sphere, the elementalist is a blaster's dream. And so, as we set about balancing it, we decided to give it a low number of talents (only 10 by level 20) and a bonus combat feat every 4 levels. The Destruction sphere doesn't require many talents to be useful (it stops progressing in power after about 4, and after that simply makes the blaster more versatile,) so the class has everything it needs built in, covering the basic combat feats and destruction talents any good blaster needs to do his job.
The versatility, then, comes from the fact that despite its low number of talents, it is a High-Caster. With the basics covered by the class itself, players are freed to spend their feats however they want, using them for skill bonuses, defense, or new magic spheres which it can use with the same caster level as a dedicated Thaumaturge.
The Eliciter: The eliciter (formally the emophet of my previous post,) is just as dedicated as the elementalist, but to a different concept entirely; persuasion. She treats herself as a High-Caster for the Mind sphere and only the Mind sphere (being a mid-caster for all others,) and gains bonuses to the DCs of his Mind sphere abilities and class feature abilities, which include a choice of different emotions she can manipulate with a touch.
In the Eliciter's case, versatility comes from the fact that her class's focus is so strong, it actually doesn't need that much more work to hit what one might call 'top possible power-level.' Her class features and the Mind sphere do the same thing, so if the player decides to dedicate her talents to the Mind sphere, she can then dedicate her emotion abilities to those that provide benefits in combat (granting rage or better roles to allies.) Likewise, if the eliciter chooses emotions that relate to charm or fear, she can use her magic talents to branch out into other spheres, picking up destruction, illusion, healing, or whatever other Sphere abilities she chooses. Of course the eliciter could choose to dedicate both emotion and talents to mind-control, but she will quickly hit the point where such focus doesn't make her better at persuasion, just more focused.
The Symbiat: A psyonicist, the symbiat gains the mind and telekinesis spheres as bonus spheres at first level, and gains class features that at least thematically related to telepathy and telekinesis. However, I recently decided that rather than be a high-caster for the mind and telekinesis spheres and a mid-caster for all others, the symbiat should simply be a mid-caster for all spheres.
This is because, while the symbiat needs to possess the mind and telekinesis spheres for thematic purposes, mechanically he's not actually tied to either. A symbiat could choose to ignore those spheres entirely and focus on Destruction, Nature, or anything else he chooses. Thus, while a symbiat could easily be the party's dedicated telekinesis and mind expert, there was no reason to incentivise him to take that route (read: punish him for choosing any others) and doing anything else felt like we were actively trying to discourage creativity in player builds.
There is one more class we're working on; a shapeshifter (name pending) focused on the alteration sphere. I find myself reflecting on these other three classes, because the answer to how to do the shapeshifter is not quite as apparent as with the other three; shapeshifters can be so many things to so many people (front-line fighters, infiltrators, and if going for a Druid-esque focus, casters as well,) that finding out how exactly to grant that versatility can be daunting. Do we make him a high-caster and give him lots of magic talents so players can diversify that way? Do we give the class specific mechanics that allow it to accomplish all three ideas well, thus freeing players up to diversify with feats as we did with the elementalist? Or do we do something else entirely?
My hope is to have the classes all finished by the end of this week and release them for general playtesting on Monday. If all goes well, I'll be curious to see how players react to these different approaches to balance and versatility, and see if one stands out as a favorite, and if any of them need to go back to the drawing board.