Pathfinder RPG equation: play with zero players, one GM

Posted on August 30, 2011


For a particular playing style, what Pathfinder RPG really is about is a simulation of an imagined world. There are NPC:s controlled by GM and NPC:s controlled by players. Yes, I said NPC:s not PC:s, more on this later. To get to the root of this, all you really need is the GM who is introducing scenes. After that everyone can just sit back and watch how game mechanics are solving any matters in the game, including any NPC interactions, puzzle solving and, of course, combat encounters.

Logical sentence defining a full Pathfinder RPG experience is as follows:

die to roll =
IF (GM calls for saving throw)
saving throw
ELSE IF (Strength check)
Strength check
ELSE IF (possible to use Diplomacy) OR (possible to use Sense Motive)
Diplomacy check OR Sense Motive check
ELSE IF (combat)
IF (round zero)
ELSE IF (losing)
IF (magic user)
escape using magic
use skill
most favourable combat action
use skill

I believe you can apply this sentence to many no-need-to-think, non-old school role playing game. Bigger the rules book the better. Issues discussed below are raising from Pathfinder RPG, but they are particularly present in Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 and Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition, too. One could argue to include Role Master in this group, but I’m not doing that. Role Master is honestly complicated, while these D&D variants are trying to be easily accessible, hiding complex mechanics behind nice artworks and fancy miniatures, and at the end of the day you realize all you got was a role-playing experience light on creativity and hard on mechanics.

Choosing most favourable action sounds like a lot of decision-making, which requires intelligent thought. That conclusion is, however, false, as we see later in this article. It is very simple to use the formula above.

The equation is missing a possibility for retreat. I’ve seen that withdrawn happens seldom in Pathfinder RPG. Fights are fought to bitter end. But lo, there is a mechanics for withdrawal, an action called Withdraw. But who uses Withdraw, as you can do it better using Acrobatics skill check to tumble yourself to safety? Wait a minute… did I just say skill check to retreat? Ok, I just presented a case where the formula works.

Then one very important clause: this discussion shouldn’t be understood as exclusive conclusion that all modern fantasy is as non-intelligent as what I’m presenting here. There are lot of new games that require a whole set of different mental capacities. Playing style makes all difference between the need of individual thought and leaving the simulation up to the computer (or GM). And finally, there is nothing wrong in taking part of a simulated game and having a good time.

Minimum amount of intelligent thought needed to play Pathfinder RPG

When I was hinting about the need of mental capacities above, I really mean that Pathfinder RPG doesn’t need any. It does not prevent you using your thought, but it is not a requirement. I could run a game of Pathfinder RPG to our two dogs:

  1. buy newest Pathfinder RPG module or Adventure Path
  2. print pre-generated characters
  3. make the dogs sit and stay, place character sheets in front of them
  4. start running the adventure
  5. if a player has difficulties finding particular modifier etc. from his/her character record, or has troubles in throwing a die, GM can help

How can this be? Why I’m even suggesting something as stupid as playing an RPG with animal players? You see, the thing is that players don’t have to do anything, if they don’t want to. Published adventures have all the statistics ready for players. The scenario is often quite close written, offering hints to cover unexpected situations but as long as players are following the path, everything is going ok with just occasional “yes, GM” and a dice roll. All information can be gained with dice and any NPC interactions are covered with Diplomacy check or some other skill check. Outside combat, there is no encounter, puzzle or situation where a good skill check couldn’t be applied. D&D 4th edition and Pathfinder RPG are pushing this up themselves, calling these situations “Skill challenges”. No roleplaying needed, no discussion between a player and a GM is needed. When the GM says “you have to gather information from this village”, players can just say “yes” and roll a die. When playing with dogs, you can take wagging tail as yes.

I’m not arguing against published adventures, quite the opposite: most of the time I’m playing or running published adventures, and I like it. This is an argument against games which don’t require thinking.

Business plan

Should I rather say: this is an argument against a playing style which doesn’t require thinking. I’m not against that, anyone can play just as he and his group likes. What I disagree with Paizo and current D&D publisher (which I’m not supporting by mentioning their name in a keyword-hungry Internet) is that they present their products as simulations of imagined worlds and are trying to fool people not to think any further. Where is the chapter in the rule book saying “yeah, these are the rules, but, you know, it’s more important that you play the story not the rule book?” Endless are the times when Pathfinder RPG players and GM’s have been arguing against a particular action, because it is not covered in rules. When I’m GMing, I’m getting these things from my players: how could the monster do that, it’s not in the book? Or when I, as GM, approve to particular plan of player A and other players tell player A and me to keep it: “that is not mentioned in the book, it can’t happen”. The single argument to justify these cries is balance.

Game balance in a role-playing game is a big joke. Balance is important if you are playing a tabletop wargame, where opposing forces are built up with point-buy system and are facing each other in a tournament. It is much needed feature in several games: in bigger scale, like DBM or Warhammer Fantasy Battle, or in smaller scale like in Hordes, where a handful of fantasy characters are facing each other in a tactical battle. Uh, did I just say a group of characters in a tactical battle? Sounds just like Pathfinder RPG marketing talk! Quick conclusion is that the area where Pathfinder RPG really shines is combat. That sounds like fun!

Battle encounters are battles in real life, too

But mind our two dogs and think again. In our adventure, a battle encounter is just starting. I really don’t have to ask what players are doing, because they both already rolled for initiative and are counting squares of the battle mat at the middle of the table. At the first possible moment, sorcerer starts to fly and throws fireballs, while barbarian character goes in rage and charges. No big brainwork needed and this has been seen already hundreds of times, only difference is that this time, with his new ability, the barbarian character has fire resistance of 10 instead of 5, adding extra half an hour the time of resolving this scene, when average damage is recalculated, reminders on dice rolls are shouted retroactively and a lot of square counting takes place to position the hits and stands the most effective way. The random encounter of five poor half-level hobgoblins meeting the two high-level PC:s got 45 minutes to resolve, when with a little of creative mind it could have been solved in one minute. Like this:

  • GM: “Sound of a guard patrol closes. What do you do?”
  • Player: “We could probably win the fight easily, but my character is not interested in bloodshed for nothing, and anyway we were on our way to ask some questions from the prisoners. I say we just hide.”

Combat is the part of the Pathfinder PRG where the mechanics are heaviest. It is also the part where most of the time in a gaming night goes. I find combat in Pathfinder RPG very, very disappointing. While I like the aspect of thinking actions (note that true players are often talking about fancy tactics instead of lame actions) for my character, the time of actually resolve combat actions is taking way too long. In fact, if I really go into this, the most enjoyable part of combat in Pathfinder RPG is preparing for it, meaning, advancing levels in my character. That is the time where I think various options, choose feats, change weapons and pick up spells. When the time of actual combat comes, all is already done: I have my feats, my magical equipment and I have discussed, during character creating/advancement with my fellow players about combat roles. The spotlight, the combat, is, in fact, very boring, very slow, and after a time, at the level of zero though. Just executing the plan, the feats, the spells.

Saved by the book!

Up comes the time when new Bestiary (what was known in earlier times as Monster Manual) hits the shelfs and GMs are sighing: finally something new! What they are missing is not a new book with more and more of rules, but a chance to give surprises to their players. Chances which all-defined, unquestionable policy of playing by the book denies.

Lets go back to my most favourite part, the character creation. I can spend days in thinking my character. Not actively of course but every now and then I find myself thinking them, both thinking about their needs and motives and the numbers and other mechanics on character sheet. Lately, I’ve been taken more by the needs and motives part. I’ve been quite happy with Herolabs, that is a small Windows application that runs nicely in Wine of my Ubuntu notebook and does all the number crushing needed for character creation and advancement. With the help of my notebook, the time comes when I finally am happy with my character and the evening for next gaming session starts. Like Paizo suggests, part of the session is used by NPC interactions and other half goes to combat encounters. With five player characters, a single, simple combat takes easily 30 minutes. In that time, everyone has maybe two or three rounds. That means, in half an hour, my character can do three things. I already know what the three things are, and everyone else in our group knows it, too. Also I know in advance what other players characters are doing with their three actions, and other players are knowing that, too. Now what is the logic of spending half an hour of our precious time to play the act everyone already knows? And would it be interesting act, like from a real theatre play, well yes, or from a story telling game like Fiasco!, certainly, but it is an act that we have already seen two or three times a month for eleven years (as long as D&D 3.0 has been available). Rogue sneaks, bard sings, fighter uses power attack, wizard throws magic missiles and cleric supports everyone. That was the battle. Was all the effort put on my character creation worth it? I honestly  think it was. Was time spend wisely tonight? Certainly not!

I have seen this before. Spending hours in creating my Magic: The Gathering pack was fun: the gaming itself was not. Spending nights and nights in preparing my Warhammer Fantasy army for a game of WHFB 5th edition was fun, the actual gaming was not. Maybe it is the lack of some characteristics of my own. Gaming spirit? Urge to be the winner? Or opposite, lack of competitive mind? Could be. Doesn’t apply to Pathfinder RPG, where there are no winners or losers. Read further.

Proper melee fighting games?

Some games are enjoyable even when you are repeating the same kinds of actions from battle to battle. You prepare your forces, put big thought in composition and maybe even write some background story. Good examples are DBA, historical miniature game which typically takes 15-45 minutes to resolve, and Warmachine, where battle can last from 10 minutes to an hour or more. Both games can and typically are played so that would one of the players face drastic disadvantage, like losing his command-in-chief at first round, game ends by common agreement and battle restarts or players which opponents. Typically in Pathfinder RPG, when player characters face an opponent they clearly overpower, they won’t resolve the matter quickly in one way or another but instead start to using their secondary abilities, which normally are not getting much use during “proper” fights. Keeping in mind that Pathfinder RPG combat encounter often lasts between 3 to 6 rounds, every character will always have a lot of unused abilities.

Some RPG:s are fast, too. Combat in old-school RPG:s are often fast and deadly, combat in Savage Worlds is fast and fun. Both are fast because there are no restrictions what a character can do. The more and more you add rules, more it restricts player choices, because if feat X makes action Y possible, you can never do Y without X.

Tonight: game for 0 players, enroll yourself now!

What was I earlier saying about players playing NPC:s? What I mean is that what they get from Pathfinder RPG, according to rule book, is an array of numbers and feats. Without outside influence, like an older gamer telling what table top role playing is compared to computer simulated role playing game, they see their character as a piece on gaming board, nothing more. During a gaming session, all they have to say is declare in which order they are using their spells. After a time, players get used to each others preferences, after which creative though is no longer needed. At this point, GM can take over the PCs and start running the simulation, earlier called a game, on his own.

I’m sure someone who knows predicate logic can come up with a formal presentation of the Pathfinder RPG equation. Please post in your suggestions!