How Balanced Isn't the Game?

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So, it occured to me that a lot of things seen as overpowered do have fairly simple counters. Sure, they might still be powerful, but I came to realise that I've often been taking for granted that things which I "know" to be powerful are, in some ways. This is sort of the difference between practical and theoretical optimisation.

So, what I'm wondering is, how often does the game assume things which mightn't be true but perhaps should be (like number of encounters per day, wealth by level, etc) and how often could a crafty DM rebalance things simply by using the right situations to challenge the party sufficiently?

Despite the name, I'm not really asking how balanced things are - more about assumptions and preconceptions. For example, those powerful casters are more powerful in a single fight where they can use all their resources, but when many encounters occur in a day, the Fighter-types and Warlocks have more of a chance to shine. DMM: Persist is crazy at low(ish) levels, but how often do foes carry Dispel Magic? Should they do so more? Would that make a lot of difference?

At the end of the day, the DM always has a bigger gun, so I'm not saying "aha, casters aren't powerful because I can Dispel their buffs" for someone to say "aha, but I have a Ring of Enduring Arcana" or whatever. I'm saying, are there easy pitfalls to avoid when setting up your DM encounters so as to avoid exacerbating imbalance in the game? Things like that. Thoughts?
In many ways I think using fully optimized NPCs (you probably can guess the kind I'm talking about) against PC who aren't nearly at that level of optimization is a problem.  This is especially true if you use the "Nova" and "glass cannon" type characters against the PCs.

To me a pitfall is designing encounters that just start "too difficult" which you have a hard time getting your PCs through once things start going bad.  I believe it is often easier to take an encounter that is too soft and then toughen it up if needed then it is to realistically put the breaks on one that is too strong.

I know I'm a fan of the old school dungeon crawls where the PCs should be expected to handle a lot of encounters between rest stops.  At higher levels this will mean that many of those encounters will be "easy" but as long as those encounters do something they can make those big encounters more meaningful.  As you point out if you throw a lot of those little encounters at a group the warriors who can "go all day" should be happier as they deal with things so those alpha casters can keep the resources to deal with the big bads.
 
The biggest issue is really for the DM: how do you make an encounter a challenge without nerfgunning the players?
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56788208 wrote:
I do, however, have one last lesson on this subject. That last one? The only build in this post that can one-shot average opponents[by dealing twice as much damage as they have HP? I would argue that it is not optimized. Why isn't it optimized? Because it's overkill. Overkill is NOT optimizing. This means that there are portions of this build dedicated to damage which can safely be removed and thrown elsewhere. For example, you probably don't need both Leap Attack AND Headlong Rush at the same time. You could pick up Extra Rage feats for stamina, feats to support AoO effects, feats that work towards potential prestige classes, and so on. However, you could also shift our ability scores around somewhat. I mean, if you're getting results like that with 16 starting Strength, maybe you can lower it to 14, and free up four points to spend somewhere else - perhaps back into Charisma, giving you some oomph for Intimidating Rage or Imperious Command if you want. You can continue to tune this until it deals "enough" damage - and that "enough" does not need to be "100%". It could easily be, say, 80% (leaving the rest to the team), if your DM is the sort who would ban one-hit killers.
Tempest_Stormwind on Character Optimization
So when do you think Bachmann will be saying she met a mother the previous night that had a son who got a blood transfusion using a gay guy's blood, and now the son is retardedly gay?
When she meets CJ's mom?
Resident Pithed-Off Dragon Poon Slayer of the House of Trolls
The biggest issue is really for the DM: how do you make an encounter a challenge without nerfgunning the players?

It's certainly a lot easier if you don't have players who NEED to be hit with some kind of nerfgun if you want to have any kind of meaningful encounter.
 
This is especially true if you use the "Nova" and "glass cannon" type characters against the PCs.

Oh yeah. I think defensive enemies probably work best - you want to make the fight last, and soak up resources, without a great risk of TPK. That's not to say the PCs should never be in any danger, and a foe who can drop the biggest, toughest Barbarian to very low HP quite quickly can give them a big shock (which can be fun), but should be used judiciously IMO (I got in trouble in a PF game mainly for having a Magus one-shot the party fighter, despite the fact that a lot of it was nonlethal so she wasn't dead).

Specifically, I mean things like the encounters per day. The game assumes 3-4 I think, but I often see people having single fights in a day. Then people wonder why the casters seem overpowered. It can be quite hard to reconcile per day, per encounter and unlimited (like a Fighter's sword swings) resources, especially if there's a scheme people are "supposed" to stick to and don't.

And yes, you want to make the encounter challenging for the right reasons, but you also want to make it equally challenging for everyone. And, of course, throwing constant Nishruus against the casters is kinda harsh.

Fred, I think you're wrong about making challenges "difficult for everyone". I don't know that that goal is even realistic (outside of an AMF with tank mobs). I think each challenge should be geared to be difficult for different PCs. If the charger is 1H1K on everything, throw terrain obstacles or visibility issues his way. If the casters are making the game "not fun" for the others, throw high-SR/PR monsters at them, etc.
"Today's headlines and history's judgment are rarely the same. If you are too attentive to the former, you will most certainly not do the hard work of securing the latter." -Condoleezza Rice "My fellow Americans... I've just signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. Bombing begins in five minutes." - Ronald Reagan This user has been banned from you by the letters "O-R-C" and the numbers "2, 3, 4, and 6"
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56788208 wrote:
I do, however, have one last lesson on this subject. That last one? The only build in this post that can one-shot average opponents[by dealing twice as much damage as they have HP? I would argue that it is not optimized. Why isn't it optimized? Because it's overkill. Overkill is NOT optimizing. This means that there are portions of this build dedicated to damage which can safely be removed and thrown elsewhere. For example, you probably don't need both Leap Attack AND Headlong Rush at the same time. You could pick up Extra Rage feats for stamina, feats to support AoO effects, feats that work towards potential prestige classes, and so on. However, you could also shift our ability scores around somewhat. I mean, if you're getting results like that with 16 starting Strength, maybe you can lower it to 14, and free up four points to spend somewhere else - perhaps back into Charisma, giving you some oomph for Intimidating Rage or Imperious Command if you want. You can continue to tune this until it deals "enough" damage - and that "enough" does not need to be "100%". It could easily be, say, 80% (leaving the rest to the team), if your DM is the sort who would ban one-hit killers.
Tempest_Stormwind on Character Optimization
So when do you think Bachmann will be saying she met a mother the previous night that had a son who got a blood transfusion using a gay guy's blood, and now the son is retardedly gay?
When she meets CJ's mom?
Resident Pithed-Off Dragon Poon Slayer of the House of Trolls
Yes, OK - that's fair enough I guess. What I meant was, simply cranking up the difficulty doesn't suffice, because characters who weren't the cause of the problem now struggle.

Though really, I'm talking less about how to deal with specific characters (the DM can always do that if necessary) but more about the fact that the game seems to be balanced towards situations which don't necessarily occur, and so looks unbalanced from what is actually a warped perspective. To an extent. It's probably still not all that balanced, but you get my gist.
The fun thing about NPC spellcasters is that, like PC spellcasters, they are much less gear dependent. Furthermore, any build that a PC uses, an NPC uses.


The best weapon against an optimizer is to use his own or a better build against him, and just wipe him.

I'm reminded of the Frenzied Barbarian nova-kill character, where you take an Enlarged NPC Frenzied Berserker and charge the party with his spiked chain. He jumps, he threatens everything in 20'r, and then proceeds to do a minimum of 250 hp dmg with every attack, and Supreme Cleave. Give him something to deal with miss chance, such as true seeing, and it's a party wipe.   

And that's just basic glass cannon stuff, real twinkie optimized uberchargers can do much more.

==Aelryinth    
Fighter vs Warblade analysis http://community.wizards.com/go/thread/view/75882/19573526/Analyzing_the_Fighter_vs_The_Warblade The Lockdown F/20 iconic build http://community.wizards.com/go/thread/view/75882/19856162/A_little_Lock_build_for_you
It may just be me but playing "rocket tag" in an RPG where I want to grow and develop a character just isn't very much fun.
TBH, playing "rocket tag" full stop gets old kinda fast.

But really, I'm talking less about the DM always having a bigger gun (which he does) and more about what we do (and should) expect from a DM. "Optimised builds" is a good one, in so far as the NPCs should probably be optimised to a similar level as the PCs. Killing PCs needlessly is... well, needless, but throwing stupid mooks at players who have done their homework is kinda stupid too.
Sorry Fred if things were getting off topic.

Something I say needs to be done to keep a "balanced" game is to make sure you play the NPCs as intelligently as they are.  As groups level their tactics and strategies could/should become known to the smarter NPC they may face.  The buff happy party may not face Dispel Magic in every encounter but smart opponents should be aware of the tactic and have something prepared for it when logical.  In a world where rocket tag is routinely played anyone who isn't capable of that will learn what things hinder and slow down those characters.

It may also be just me but when I think of a "balanced" world I do not really think of one where high level characters (level 14+) are constantly running around.  Unfortunately is seems that DnD, especially 4e from what I understand of it, works on a gamist world where everything revolves around the PCs and challenges are always based on them.  Someone mentioned that a party should expect 3-4 encounters per day but I'll note that those are encounters with EL equal to the party level.  As player level up they should really face a lot more encounters each day although a lot more of them will be below the party level in difficulty.
Ick.  "Rocket tag" has the same problem as deadly traps in making the game short and uninteresting. 

Realistically, you throw a mixture of opponents, and the party has fun stomping some of them into paste, while struggling with others, and only having the occasional deadly threat.  And a bunch of midline challenges that use up some party resources to deal with, even if they're not all that dangerous.

You want the stupid mooks to get stomped, because it's an aspect of the heroic adventurers being heroic adventurers.  As long as it's not boring or frustrating, the game is generally running fine.  I think it's important for the DM to remember that the PCs are there to fill the role of protagonists in his story, that they're supposed to survive and thrive, and that the challenges are there to serve that end.
And that's just basic glass cannon stuff, real twinkie optimized uberchargers can do much more.

That reminds me of that bit about an orc barbarian with a basic two-handed weapon being one of the most dangerous CR 1 opponents (since they can take down most PCs with a single average-damage attack).

The kraken stirs. And ten billion sushi dinners cry out for vengeance. - Good Omens

Co-Author of the Dreamfane, Euralden Eye, Fulminating Crab, Gajuisan Crawler, Gruesome LurkerIronglass Rose, Sheengrass Swarm, Spryjack, Usunag, and Warp Drifter, and author of the Magmal Horror from Force of Nature.

My most popular campaign item; for all your adventuring convenience.
Zauber's Mutable Rod: This rod has a number of useful functions that make it easier to live in the wilderness. It is made of polished wood, with five studlike buttons on one end. Each button produces a different effect when pressed. Unless otherwise noted, the rod’s functions have no limit on the number of times they can be employed. When button 1 is pressed, one end of the rod produces a small flame, equivalent to a candle. When button 2 is pressed, the rod unfolds into a two-person tent, complete with bedrolls and warm blankets. When button 3 is pressed, the rod becomes a one-handed hammer, suitable for pounding pitons into a wall. When button 4 is pressed, the rod becomes a sturdy iron spade. When button 5 is pressed, the rod becomes a wooden bucket able to hold 2 gallons of liquid. Once per day, it can be commanded to fill with fresh water. If the rod is seriously damaged or broken in any of its alternate forms (button 2, 3, 4, or 5), it reverts to its basic rod form and cannot be activated for 24 hours. Moderate conjuration; CL 9th; Craft Rod, minor creation; Price 375 gp; Weight 2 lb.

A few thoughts based on my own experience....


It's important to understand that most games need not be played at or even to 20th level.  In fact, of the many campaigns I've run, only one has reached 20th level.  Most of mine are played into the early teens at most.  The scope of any adventure/campaign needs to be clearly defined at the outset, so all players, DM included, have the same expectations.  The same is true for other aspects of the game.  The group needs to be clear on the overall flow and style of the adventure or campaign.


THe DM has to keep the mechanics from overshadowing the setting.  Sure the mechanics provide the basic framwork on which the world is built, but the mere existence of a specific mechanic or rule should not automatically force its existence in the setting.  There are limitations on just how flexible the base mechanics can be, but the mechanics must work for the setting, not the other way around.  This means that the DM needs to clearly define what mechanical options exist: which base classes (or variants thereof) and prestige classes are included; what alternative rules are in play; how available is magical gear.


The base rules are indeed designed around 4 level-appropriate encounters per day.  Now, is it realistic for a group of adventurers to be so constantly attacked?  That depends upon the nature of the campaign and story.  So, how does a DM keep the party from going nova on the first ecounter of the day?  I think it's a matter of keeping the players guessing.  When I'm the DM, I don't keep the PCs under constant assault.  However, I do keep them busy often enough that they have to use their resources as if any given encounter will be followed by more. 


I also follow the wealth by level table very closely.  If the PCs are getting ahead of the curve, I will use a few low treasure encounters to bring it back in line.


As the saying goes, "Your mileage may very."

It's important to understand that most games need not be played at or even to 20th level.

Very true.

Now, is it realistic for a group of adventurers to be so constantly attacked?

That is something which bugs me, though you can strain their resources in non-combat encounters too I think. Also, I agree about keeping them guessing. Having only one encounter is just the same if they think there'll be another one later.
Now, is it realistic for a group of adventurers to be so constantly attacked?

That is something which bugs me, though you can strain their resources in non-combat encounters too I think.

This often troubles me as well.  Non-combat, problem-solving encounters, which usually involve specific mechanics (trap to disarm, code to decipher, clues to be searched for), can be good at tapping PC resources.  But other story-focused, role-play intensive events are harder to judge on a mechanical basis.  These in-character activities, where the players are thinking and speaking as their characters' would, often provide some of the most vivid gaming memories for me.  These are also situations that I think would be less likely and less memorable if there were pages of detailed rules governing their adjudication.  A few mechanical guidelines can be helpful, but rules for these events must be flexible and fluid, as a DM must also be in running them.  In other words, mechanics should support the story not limit it.

 

t's important to understand that most games need not be played at or even to 20th level.  In fact, of the many campaigns I've run, only one has reached 20th level.  Most of mine are played into the early teens at most.  The scope of any adventure/campaign needs to be clearly defined at the outset, so all players, DM included, have the same expectations.


I'm always a bit puzzled by this as most PrCs are 10 levels and only allow entry at level 6 or later. This means that to complete even one PrC you're already level 15+.
To me the game often only starts to take on an element of high fantasy by the time you get into that range of levels. I find most low level stuff to be centered around "Oh a cliff, did anyone bring rope" and and combat being about "hitting things with sticks".

Low level has it's own challenges but they're usually pretty mundane. I like it when we get to the point where people can turn into a Dragon, travel to another plane, hack trough a whole group of low level mooks in a round.

Are most of the people you play with just not interested in that kind of stuff?

Star Wars Saga Edition is by far the best RPG that Wizards of the Coast has ever published.

 

I once asked the question (in D&D 3.5) "Does a Druid4/Wizard3/ArcaneHierophant1 have Wildshape?". Jesse Decker and Andy Collins: Yes and the text is clear and can't be interpreted differently. Rich Redman and Ed Stark: No and the text is clear and can't be interpreted differently. Skip Williams: Lol, it's worded ambiguously and entirely not how I intended it. (Cust. Serv. Reference# 050815-000323)

t's important to understand that most games need not be played at or even to 20th level.  In fact, of the many campaigns I've run, only one has reached 20th level.  Most of mine are played into the early teens at most.  The scope of any adventure/campaign needs to be clearly defined at the outset, so all players, DM included, have the same expectations.


I'm always a bit puzzled by this as most PrCs are 10 levels and only allow entry at level 6 or later. This means that to complete even one PrC you're already level 15+.
To me the game often only starts to take on an element of high fantasy by the time you get into that range of levels. I find most low level stuff to be centered around "Oh a cliff, did anyone bring rope" and and combat being about "hitting things with sticks".

Low level has it's own challenges but they're usually pretty mundane. I like it when we get to the point where people can turn into a Dragon, travel to another plane, hack trough a whole group of low level mooks in a round.

Are most of the people you play with just not interested in that kind of stuff?



It is true that the structure of the rules (base classes to level 20 and prestige classes designed to max out at a total character level of 16 or 17) are designed to be played at the full range of levels.  But, is it necessary to play at those levels every time or even part of the time?  The answer is purely preference and opinion.

It's all a matter of how one defines 'high fantasy' which is a very subjective concept.  One could argue that there are penty of level one game elements that are classic high fantasy, including such things as turn undead and most 1st-level spells.

We can look at this another way.  At what level would a non-magic-oriented character in D&D3.5 be able to regularly perform tasks beyond normal, real people?  This article is a very good discussion of just this subject: thealexandrian.net/wordpress/587/rolepla...
My own experiences of the last ten-plus years bear out the conclusions Justin Alexander draws.  A D&D PC far exceeds the mundane by level 6 or 7 (earlier in some aspects).  By this scale, a 15th or 16th level character would appear to be a 'god' to a tribe of 1st level commoners or warriers, and even among his peers would be on his way to being a demigod.

While certainly an interesting discussion, this still does not definitively settle the meaning and scope of 'high fantasy.'  That will remain a matter of preference, decided upon by each gaming group as they like.

My players just happen to enjoy solving problems (whether they be combat or non-combat encounters) that some would call 'mundane' just as much as they enjoy 'high fantasy' events -- as long as the encounter is appropriately challenging relative to their PCs capabilities.  The degree of fun does not change for my players throughout the range of play offered by D&D3.5.  And we have played to high levels more than once, including one that I ran up to level 25.  At the same time, the very next campaign I ran with the same core group concluded at level 15.  Not a single player felt anything was missing from the latter campaign.

All that said, if fun for you is plane-hopping, wyrm hunting, and other aspects of high level play, then by all means, play on.  I had the opportunity to play in just such a campaign a couple years ago -- and had blast.  There is plenty of room in D&D for a plethora of play styles.
Actually, all class-based abilities are extraordinary unless noted otherwise, and native spell-casting falls under this paradigm. It's one of the basic principles of class design.
 
==Aelryinth
Fighter vs Warblade analysis http://community.wizards.com/go/thread/view/75882/19573526/Analyzing_the_Fighter_vs_The_Warblade The Lockdown F/20 iconic build http://community.wizards.com/go/thread/view/75882/19856162/A_little_Lock_build_for_you
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Actually, all class-based abilities are extraordinary unless noted otherwise, and native spell-casting falls under this paradigm.

Does that mean you can use spells in an antimagic field?
Does that mean you can use spells in an antimagic field?

Well, you can cast spells in an antimagic field, they just don't do anything while you're in there because all of their effects are suppressed.

The kraken stirs. And ten billion sushi dinners cry out for vengeance. - Good Omens

Co-Author of the Dreamfane, Euralden Eye, Fulminating Crab, Gajuisan Crawler, Gruesome LurkerIronglass Rose, Sheengrass Swarm, Spryjack, Usunag, and Warp Drifter, and author of the Magmal Horror from Force of Nature.

My most popular campaign item; for all your adventuring convenience.
Zauber's Mutable Rod: This rod has a number of useful functions that make it easier to live in the wilderness. It is made of polished wood, with five studlike buttons on one end. Each button produces a different effect when pressed. Unless otherwise noted, the rod’s functions have no limit on the number of times they can be employed. When button 1 is pressed, one end of the rod produces a small flame, equivalent to a candle. When button 2 is pressed, the rod unfolds into a two-person tent, complete with bedrolls and warm blankets. When button 3 is pressed, the rod becomes a one-handed hammer, suitable for pounding pitons into a wall. When button 4 is pressed, the rod becomes a sturdy iron spade. When button 5 is pressed, the rod becomes a wooden bucket able to hold 2 gallons of liquid. Once per day, it can be commanded to fill with fresh water. If the rod is seriously damaged or broken in any of its alternate forms (button 2, 3, 4, or 5), it reverts to its basic rod form and cannot be activated for 24 hours. Moderate conjuration; CL 9th; Craft Rod, minor creation; Price 375 gp; Weight 2 lb.
No. The ability to spellcast is an extraordinary ability. The spells themselves are definitely magical. You could, for instance, sit inside an A-M field and get your spells back, be it by prayer, meditation, or poring over a book. You just can't cast them.

==Aelryinth
Fighter vs Warblade analysis http://community.wizards.com/go/thread/view/75882/19573526/Analyzing_the_Fighter_vs_The_Warblade The Lockdown F/20 iconic build http://community.wizards.com/go/thread/view/75882/19856162/A_little_Lock_build_for_you
Actually, Spellcasting is never defined as Ex.  It's not Su or Sp either.
iirc - the K Polymorph thread at the very end of the old T.O. board
had a conclusion along the lines of:  spellcasting is something , and
that something is either (ex) or (su) or (sp) , but we don't know which one.

Actually, all class-based abilities are extraordinary unless noted otherwise, and native spell-casting falls under this paradigm. It's one of the basic principles of class design.
 
==Aelryinth


No. The ability to spellcast is an extraordinary ability. The spells themselves are definitely magical. You could, for instance, sit inside an A-M field and get your spells back, be it by prayer, meditation, or poring over a book. You just can't cast them.

==Aelryinth


Not trying to start a fight, but it would be interesting to have this hashed out.

3.e psionics is called (su) in the 3.0 DMG.
3.5e psionics is called (ps) in the XPH/SRD ... (maybe a whoopsy)

Ready, set, argue.

5E mini- SRD available now in HTML here:  http://dnd.wizards.com/products/tabletop/players-basic-rules

 

Well sure it can go elsewhere  //  it is a game balance question.



(y'know like a "Gestalt" question or something)

5E mini- SRD available now in HTML here:  http://dnd.wizards.com/products/tabletop/players-basic-rules

 

Despite the name, I'm not really asking how balanced things are - more about assumptions and preconceptions. For example, those powerful casters are more powerful in a single fight where they can use all their resources, but when many encounters occur in a day, the Fighter-types and Warlocks have more of a chance to shine. DMM: Persist is crazy at low(ish) levels, but how often do foes carry Dispel Magic? Should they do so more? Would that make a lot of difference?

At the end of the day, the DM always has a bigger gun, so I'm not saying "aha, casters aren't powerful because I can Dispel their buffs" for someone to say "aha, but I have a Ring of Enduring Arcana" or whatever. I'm saying, are there easy pitfalls to avoid when setting up your DM encounters so as to avoid exacerbating imbalance in the game? Things like that. Thoughts?


Another thought occurred to me relates to prestige classes.  This from the DMG is key, "We encourage you, as the DM, to tightly limit the prestige classes available in your campaign."  Ignoring this one line opens one's campaign to many of the most potentially abusive mechanical combinations.  Prestige classes are intended to be a tool to incorporate some customized classes and abilities that support the unique flavor of a given world/setting.  They are not designed to be a massive menu of abilities to be assembled into a system-breaking character.

So, carefully and thoughfully limiting the availability of prestige classes, along with the other tools in the DM's box can help mitigate much of the game's imbalance.

By utilizing these various tools, I have been able to run many campaigns that are simply devoid of most of the troubling balance issues.  I don't know if that experience is typical or unusual, however.    
No. The ability to spellcast is an extraordinary ability. The spells themselves are definitely magical. You could, for instance, sit inside an A-M field and get your spells back, be it by prayer, meditation, or poring over a book. You just can't cast them.

==Aelryinth

Class features are Ex, but inherent casting from creatures is Na.

Customer Disservice of the House of Trolls Resident Secretly Ron Paul God of Spite and Sloth
Class features are Ex, but inherent casting from creatures is Na.

That does seem to be correct as far as the literal mechanics go, though since they're not physical qualities, you don't gain them from alter self.

The kraken stirs. And ten billion sushi dinners cry out for vengeance. - Good Omens

Co-Author of the Dreamfane, Euralden Eye, Fulminating Crab, Gajuisan Crawler, Gruesome LurkerIronglass Rose, Sheengrass Swarm, Spryjack, Usunag, and Warp Drifter, and author of the Magmal Horror from Force of Nature.

My most popular campaign item; for all your adventuring convenience.
Zauber's Mutable Rod: This rod has a number of useful functions that make it easier to live in the wilderness. It is made of polished wood, with five studlike buttons on one end. Each button produces a different effect when pressed. Unless otherwise noted, the rod’s functions have no limit on the number of times they can be employed. When button 1 is pressed, one end of the rod produces a small flame, equivalent to a candle. When button 2 is pressed, the rod unfolds into a two-person tent, complete with bedrolls and warm blankets. When button 3 is pressed, the rod becomes a one-handed hammer, suitable for pounding pitons into a wall. When button 4 is pressed, the rod becomes a sturdy iron spade. When button 5 is pressed, the rod becomes a wooden bucket able to hold 2 gallons of liquid. Once per day, it can be commanded to fill with fresh water. If the rod is seriously damaged or broken in any of its alternate forms (button 2, 3, 4, or 5), it reverts to its basic rod form and cannot be activated for 24 hours. Moderate conjuration; CL 9th; Craft Rod, minor creation; Price 375 gp; Weight 2 lb.
Class features are Ex, but inherent casting from creatures is Na.

That does seem to be correct as far as the literal mechanics go, though since they're not physical qualities, you don't gain them from alter self.

Spellcasting is a Natural ability. And, according to the Rules Compendium:

NATURAL ABILITIES
This category includes abilities a creature has because of its physical nature, such as a bird’s ability to fly. Natural abilities are those not otherwise designated as extraordinary, supernatural, or spell-like. They’re rarely identified as natural—that’s assumed—and they rarely take a distinct action to use. A lion uses its claws as an attack, for instance; it doesn’t activate its claws and then attack.


Now, if we examine Alter Self, which is too much of a bother to quote the full text, you run into the line "You acquire the physical qualities of the new form while retaining your own mind."

So, yes, Shapechange, Polymorph, and Alter Self will give you Spellcasting, as natural abilities are physical qualities which they grant.
Customer Disservice of the House of Trolls Resident Secretly Ron Paul God of Spite and Sloth
This category includes abilities a creature has because of its physical nature, such as a bird’s ability to fly.

Natural abilities do include abilities that derive from the creature's physical nature, but not all natural abilities need derive from a creature's physical nature.  Natural abilities include physical abilities in the same way that a cake includes flour; it's a primary ingredient, but not the only one.

The spells of a creature may be natural abilities, but they're mental ones, rather than physical ones, so the polymorphing line of spells does not grant them.

The kraken stirs. And ten billion sushi dinners cry out for vengeance. - Good Omens

Co-Author of the Dreamfane, Euralden Eye, Fulminating Crab, Gajuisan Crawler, Gruesome LurkerIronglass Rose, Sheengrass Swarm, Spryjack, Usunag, and Warp Drifter, and author of the Magmal Horror from Force of Nature.

My most popular campaign item; for all your adventuring convenience.
Zauber's Mutable Rod: This rod has a number of useful functions that make it easier to live in the wilderness. It is made of polished wood, with five studlike buttons on one end. Each button produces a different effect when pressed. Unless otherwise noted, the rod’s functions have no limit on the number of times they can be employed. When button 1 is pressed, one end of the rod produces a small flame, equivalent to a candle. When button 2 is pressed, the rod unfolds into a two-person tent, complete with bedrolls and warm blankets. When button 3 is pressed, the rod becomes a one-handed hammer, suitable for pounding pitons into a wall. When button 4 is pressed, the rod becomes a sturdy iron spade. When button 5 is pressed, the rod becomes a wooden bucket able to hold 2 gallons of liquid. Once per day, it can be commanded to fill with fresh water. If the rod is seriously damaged or broken in any of its alternate forms (button 2, 3, 4, or 5), it reverts to its basic rod form and cannot be activated for 24 hours. Moderate conjuration; CL 9th; Craft Rod, minor creation; Price 375 gp; Weight 2 lb.
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