Archive for April, 2012
“Obvious” is a tricky concept, because most of the time it’s not actually obvious. Some facts which are obvious to one person may only seem that way because that person is surrounded by people who take that fact for granted. And that obvious fact may not even be true! For many subjects, it’s not too difficult to find two people who hold mutually exclusive viewpoints to be obviously true. We really shouldn’t be so hasty to name something “obvious.”
Due to this, it is often helpful to state that which may seem obvious in a clear and descriptive manner. Maybe I’m wasting time, but I have a feeling that this is not as well understood as it ought to be. So here we go:
The more time a player has invested in their character, the less fun it will be if that character dies.
There are some rare exceptions to this rule, but it remains largely true for any manner of time investment. We Pathfinder GMs are at something of a disadvantage. At my best, I can help a first time player through the process of creating a level 1 character in about 40 minutes. And, generally speaking, the task is viewed by a new player as something of a chore. They may come to find it much more entertaining once they begin to understand the system better, but that comes later, if at all.
The result is that, in a game like Pathfinder, there’s no way for a GM to handle character death in the first session without significant frustration on the player’s part. After spending 40 minutes or more on a character, players are not going to want to trudge through the creation process a second time just because they failed to check for pit traps. And if you’re playing with first-timers, then they’re probably going to fail to check for pit traps more than once.
When I’m running a Pathfinder game, I handle this in two ways. First, I try never to run a game composed entirely of new people. I try to find at least one veteran of my game table to sit in and provide an example of skillful play. Second, during a new player’s first few sessions, I bend the rules, and give them advice in an attempt to show them how they can best survive. But that can’t last forever. It can’t even last very long, lest players start to think they can rely on the GM for advice. And even before I do stop giving advice, it’s important to allow the players to suffer the consequences of their mistakes.
The game is no fun if there is no danger of character death.
That’s slightly more controversial, but I hold it to be no less true than the statement above. If a player’s decisions lead to their demise, then a good GM will not protect them from their fate. The fact that a player has invested enough time in a character for that character’s death to be upsetting is not a justification for allowing PCs to cheat death. In doing so, we rob the game of its danger, and without the chance of failure, it ceases to be a game.
Games with shorter character creation methods are not immune to this problem. If it only takes 5 or 10 minutes to create a character, then players won’t be too upset if their character dies in the first session of play. They probably won’t be too upset if their character dies in the second session of play, or the third. Once they reach level 2, though, they’re going to be a little more upset if they die. And as they progress through the levels, it will become more and more disheartening to lose a character. It doesn’t matter if the GM allows them to come back into the game with a new character of equal level. Losing a character you care about is never going to be fun.
I don’t bring this up because I think it’s a problem which needs to be solved. I don’t even think it really can be solved. On the one hand you have you player’s desire for their character to survive the game, on the other hand you have the entertainment value your players get from surviving a world which is legitimately deadly. You can play with the balance all you like by making characters more resilient, increasing or decreasing the availability of resurrections, or whatever. But in my experience, players are the most interested in the game when they’re coming face to face with their character’s own mortality.
I guess I don’t really have a point to make with this post, so much as I wanted to put those thoughts down somewhere.
9 Comments »
Posted by LS on Monday, April 30th, 2012 at 5:45 am
Categories: Pathfinder, System Independant
As a GM, I’ve always gravitated towards using some skills, and away from using others. In my limited experience, I’ve found that most GMs do something similar. There are skill checks which they call for, and checks which they don’t. Beneficial as those decisions may be, players are often harmed by this practice. Because, in my experience, GMs don’t communicate which skills they will be using for and which they will not. They may not have even noticed that they ignore certain skills. In my own experience, when a player says “I swim into the river,” I’ve never even considered asking for a swim check. I’ve always simply allowed players to do so. But what I’ve come to realize is that I have been, in effect, lying to my players because of that.
When a new player is joining my games, I’ve never told them not to put any ranks in swim, or climb, or disguise, or escape artist. I let them make their own decisions, not realizing that in doing so I am implying that any skill they put points into is a skill which will potentially be useful to them. How many of my players have wasted skill points on skills which would never be rolled even a single time? I have been at fault in this, which is why I set out to correct that oversight with this series. Over two weeks of posts here on Papers & Pencils have been devoted to overviewing Pathfinder’s skills. I’ve approached each one in turn with as clear a mind as I could manage, analyzing its strengths and its flaws in the hopes of cutting the fat from the system.
What has been the result? Well, the original game of Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 had an amusingly appropriate 35 skills. Pathfinder combined a number of these skills together, bringing the total number of skills down to 26. With the additional cuts I’ve made, the total number of skills is down to 14 total.You can see the breakdown of the skills on this chart:
My reduction in the number of skills is pretty drastic. It is legitimate to be concerned that it may be too drastic. If a human rogue rolls 18 for their intelligence, then they can add two to that, and start the game with an Intelligence modifier of +5. If that character also selects rogue as their favored class, then at each level they can receive a total of 15 skill points (Rogue is 8 + Intelligence Modifier, +1 for the human racial trait, +1 for leveling in a character’s favored class.) Considering that both Craft and Knowledge represent multiple skills, this doesn’t mean that the character would end up with excess skill points at each level. However, such a rogue would almost certainly be forced to put skill points into a number of abilities they had little to no interest in actually using. Such a character does not even imply any attempt to manipulate the system on the player’s part. All it would require is a lucky roll for ability scores, followed by common-sense choices.We could reduce the number of skill points each class receives. However, for now, I will be allowing characters to maintain their current speed of skill point acquisition, to see if this is actually a problem or not. After all, no class gains skill at the same pace that the rogue does, and rogues are supposed to have a wide variety of talents.
I hope I have been somewhat successful in streamlining, and improving Pathfinder’s skill system with these posts. But there’s only so much that can be done. The D20 system’s skill mechanic is fundamentally flawed, and from what I’ve seen, so is the way design decisions have been made. If not by Paizo, then at least by Wizards of the Coast.
First, there’s the issue of linear probability. Rolling a single twenty sided die for a skill check means that none of the potential results are even slightly more likely than any other possible result. A character can roll a 1, or a 20, or anything in between with equal probability. With some rolls, like attack rolls in combat, it makes good sense. Combat is chaotic, and unpredictable. Your skill at thrusting a sword is mitigated by the quality of your opponent’s armor, and their skill at parrying, or blocking, or dodging your attack. This is not true with something like a ride check or a acrobatics check. Take the instance of a jump: in Pathfinder, a level 1 commoner who attempts to jump as far as she can is just as likely to make it 1ft as she is to make it 20ft. Can you imagine anyone in the world with that kind of variance in their ability? A much better system would be one which used multiple dice for skill checks. Something like 2d10, or 3d6, which would have a bell curve of probability, where the numbers in the middle of the possible range (right around 10-11) will appear much more frequently than the numbers at either extreme of the number range.
I’ve also found that there has apparently been no real attempt to balance the skill’s usefulness against one another. It would seem to me as though any sufficient amount of play testing would reveal that skills such as escape artist are used much less frequently (and to much less effect) than skills such as perception or acrobatics. Given this wide disparity in the frequency and effectiveness of usage, a skill point put into escape artist is significantly less valuable to a player than a point spent in acrobatics. Now, I would not suggest that each skill needs to be precisely equal in value to every other skill. A game which offers as many choices for character building as Pathfinder does will always have more and less ideal ‘builds.’ But there is a limit to the disparity of balance which is acceptable. Some of Pathfinder’s core skills are more valuable than others by an order of magnitude, and that’s unacceptable.
For many of these skills, I can only imagine that they were kept in the game because the game needed to be compatible with D&D 3.5 products.
I would like to thank all of my readers who stuck with this series throughout. I know it has been a rather dry read. Truth be told, I’ve been itching to be done writing it myself. There have been a number of topics I’ve been greatly interested in writing about, but I did not want to interrupt the flow of these skill posts. Now that they’re done, I look forward to covering a variety of topics which have been on my mind these past few weeks. As mentioned earlier in this series, I am intending to re-write the Knowledge and Craft skills, as well as the process of identifying magic items. You can expect those posts in the coming weeks, but not before I’ve had some time to touch on some other subjects first.
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Posted by LS on Sunday, April 29th, 2012 at 5:45 am
Categories: Dungeons & Dragons 3.5, Pathfinder
Tags: House Rules, Skills, System Critique
Stealth (Full Description on PFSRD)(-C’s Post): The stealth skill is not quite so broken as I thought it was before I sat down to do my analysis. It can be easy for those of us who played Dungeons and Dragons 3rd edition for years to not notice, or forget, some of the changes which Pathfinder has made. Pathfinder’s stealth skill doesn’t include any information on hiding whatsoever: hiding is left up to the GM and players to work out on their own. Which is good and proper. If my players tell me they would like to hide behind a statue, then I see no reason to make them roll for it. Simply using commonsense rules about line of sight is enough. Though I would appreciate it if the stealth skill included information about hiding in shadows, or using camouflage in the woods.
In my games, I assume that all characters standing in darkness and not moving are effectively hidden and cannot be perceived unless a creature has darkvision. Moving half your speed in darkness requires a stealth check (for moving silently) made with a +4 bonus. Characters standing in dim light make stealth checks directly opposed to perception checks so long as they are not moving. If they do move, they make their check at a -4 penalty. In areas of normal or bright light, hiding in shadows is done at a -2 penalty when standing still, and a -6 penalty when moving.
I also use facing in my games, as presented under the OGL for D&D 3.5. Note that the rules include a -5 penalty for perception checks made to the “flanking” (left and right) areas, and -10 penalty for perception checks made towards the “rear” area. So characters standing to the side or the rear of a creature can attempt to use stealth checks to move silently into an area where they can hide, which allows them to hide during combat.
Judgement: As written, the skill is not clear on several key points. And, without facing, the skill’s use in combat becomes a little ridiculous. By polishing these aspects of the skill, it can be made acceptable.
Survival (Full Description on PFSRD)(-C’s Post): I like survival. When attempting to subsist in the wilderness, there are some tasks which shouldn’t be ignored, but which are none the less not interesting or easy enough to actually model at the table. Finding food and water, for example. While this may be a simple task in a forest, scrounging up the necessities of life might be significantly more difficult on a rocky mountain, or in a desert, or a poison-filled swamp. The skill also helps players avoid becoming lost, which is good when world travel is handled by a hex crawl rather than the much less entertaining “fade to black” style travel. The skill is also essential when attempting to find, and follow tracks, which is a time honored ability in D&D, and functions effectively under the Pathfinder rules.
Judgement: I would like it if this skill had more utility, but some of the utility it already has (determining weather a day in advance, for example) is pretty useless. A better mechanic for these tasks could probably be worked out for future editions of the game, but as it stands survival is adequate.
Swim (Full Description on PFSRD)(-C’s Post): If you read my entry on climb, then you already know why I hate the swim skill. It is utterly without merit for a game which takes place largely on land to treat the ability to swim as anything more than a binary function. Either yes, a character can swim, or no, they cannot swim. I suppose that if a specific adventure called for the characters to spend significant amounts of time in the water, then a “water maneuverability classes” similar to the ones traditionally used to gauge flight ability might be useful. But that’s about it.
The rules offer a number of examples of when a swim check should be asked for, such as when the water is rough, or stormy. But how often is this really an issue? In all my years, I’ve only ever played through a single underwater dungeon, and a handful of water-environment combats. Even in those instances, I never felt the need to roll dice to determine how well players could move. I understand, of course, that my personal experience can’t be extrapolated to everyone who plays the game. But the game is clearly not designed around adventuring through watery environments, and if it was, I doubt you would need to roll dice to determine whether or not you could move at all.
In my games I allow players to simply swim if they feel as though it’s an ability their character would have. If you need a mechanic, then have players who wish to swim spend a single skill point to gain the ability to do so. It makes more sense than learning languages by spending a single skill point.
Judgement: Purge this skill from your game, and let its name never be spoken again.
Use Magic Device (Full Description on PFSRD)(-C’s Post): This is another example of a well constructed skill, like Sleight of Hand. It allows any character to use items, such as wands and scrolls, which would typically only be usable by casters. This allows characters greater flexibility in their planning. My players, and myself when I am a player, often come up with elaborate plans which require the use of a specific spell cast in a specific place at a specific time, where there might be no caster present. But since a fighter is not fully capable of understanding the complexities of a scroll of fireball, it’s only logical for there to be a chance for failure.
Judgement: Keep this skill in the game as-is.
And there you have it. All of the skills. The conclusion will go up over the Weekend, after which we will return to our regularly scheduled writings.
5 Comments »
Posted by LS on Friday, April 27th, 2012 at 6:15 am
Categories: Dungeons & Dragons 3.5, Pathfinder
Tags: House Rules, Skills, System Critique