Pathfinder: First Thoughts, Part 1

For those not in the know, this is Pathfinder:
Pathfinder Core Rulebook Cover
Pathfinder is a role playing much like Dungeons & Dragons. In fact, in many places, it is word-for-word exactly like the 3.5 edition of Dungeons and Dragons. For, you see, a few years ago, Wizards of the Coast (the Hasbro subsidiary which owns Dungeons and Dragons these days) decided to “improve and update” the classic role playing game, moving it from 3.5 to 4th Edition. And, to be blunt, a lot of us players think they did a shit job. But I’m not going to go into that.

Here’s where Pathfinder comes in, though. See, there is another company called Paizo which had been working closely with Wizards of the Coast on projects such as “Dungeon” and “Dragon” magazines. They decided to take advantage of D&D 3.5’s use of the Open Game License to make a game which would appeal to those of us aforementioned gamers who felt that D&D 4th Edition strayed too far from what we liked about 3.5.

To put it simply, Pathfinder is Dungeons and Dragons 3.75. Though perhaps “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 3.5” might be somewhat more apt.

Pathfinder has been around for a few years now, but I only just picked up the Core Rulebook & Beastiary recently. (Though I did go over the rulebook when it was being beta tested back in 2008 or so.) The changes intrigued me right off of the bat, so I’ve been steadily and methodically pouring over ever page, committing the new rules to memory and thoroughly enjoying every minute of it.

To be honest I’m not quite done with the book at this point, but I’m through most of the interesting / important stuff, and I’d like to give some of my first impressions, before I start doing any playtesting. Below I’ve broken down my thoughts by chapter first, and by chapter subsection where appropriate.

Chapter 1: Getting Started

There’s not a lot to this chapter. It does include an introduction from Monte Cook (one of the people who did a lot of work on D&D 3.0/3.5) which I thought was a very nice gesture.

One thing mentioned in this chapter which I don’t recall seeing in other sources (though it may have been in Unearthed Arcana or something) is the “dice pool” method of ability score rolling. Essentially, you get a certain number of dice total, and assign a number of dice to each ability score (minimum 3). Using 24 dice, the character has no more available dice than a character using more traditional ability score rolling, but the player gets to direct the values a little better than they might get from a random roll.

For example, if you’re playing a barbarian, you might use 6 dice for Strength and Constitution (giving you a higher probability of getting high scores there) and use the minimum of 3 dice for widsom, charisma, intellect, and dexterity (since the player would deem those abilities less important to the character he wants to play.)

The best part, in my mind, is that there’s a small chance that barbarian might end up with an 18 Intellect by complete random chance, creating an interesting Role Playing opportunity.

Chapter 2: Races

This is where the differences in the game really start to shine through. In a lot of games, including D&D 3.5, choosing a race grants advantages certainly, but the impact of a race choice seems to be intentionally minimized so as not to force players of class A to select Race #4 in order to be effective. And while that’s all well and good, It’s almost always overdone.

The Pathfinder races have all been buffed significantly. Dwarfs, to use the first example provided, now receive a +2 to Constitution, a +2 to Wisdom, and a -2 to Charisma. This, I think, gives the Dwarfs a greater racial identity than the D&D 3.5 method of simply giving them +2 Con -2 Cha. They’re not just stalwart and gruff, they’re stalwart, gruff, and pragmatic.

Additionally, the choice to give an improvement to the race without forcing an additional penalty (which was done for all 7 basic races) means that players interested in optimizing their characters no longer look at Dwarfs as an option only for classes which focus on CON, and have no use for CHA.

I’d also like to give a special nod to the way Pathfinder handled Humans. They’ve always been the “jack-of-all-trades” race. Which, in D&D 3.5, meant they get no ability score bonuses or penalties. In Pathfinder, they’ve given humans a +2 to any ability score, chosen at character creation.

This theme of “buffing” is maintained all throughout pathfinder. It’s a controversial choice for a game based on a game which had already been criticized by some for leading to characters which became too powerful too quickly. But I, for one, feel that so long as the challenges scale to meet the abilities of the players (level 1 Kobolds might have 20 HP instead of 10 for example) then balanced buffs are perfectly justified.

I would also like to give props for the fantastic racial artwork. Of course, as a consumer, I would love to have more of it. But at least Pathfinder has full color artwork, as opposed to the rough sketches in the Hasbro-owned Dungeons and Dragons core books.

Chapter 3: Classes

The changes to the classes are some of the biggest in the game. It should be no surprise to anyone, particularly those who have played a game like World of Warcraft, that class balance is not a simple thing. And it’s not exactly easy to patch a game which comes in book form. So the changes to the classes in Pathfinder are meant to address a litany of balance issues which have come to light over the decade that Dungeons and Dragons 3.X reigned.

There are two things I’d like to point out right off the bat as huge improvements over 3.5.

First is the new Favored Class system. In 3.5, each race came with a predetermined “Favored Class.” To use Dwarfs as an example once again, the Dwarvish favored class was Fighter. This meant that if a Dwarf Fighter decided to multiclass, his levels of Fighter didn’t count towards his experience point penalty while multiclassing. This was part of the pointlessly complicated system which 3.5 used to punish players who wanted to level a character as more than one class (as if designing a multiclass build that doesn’t suck isn’t difficult enough.)

Pathfinder wisely avoids using punishment to discourage people from multiclassing. In Pathfinder, every time a character takes a level in their Favored Class, they get 1 bonus HP, or 1 bonus Skill Point. This pattern of using the carrot instead of the stick is repeated all throughout Pathfinder. And all I can say is Thank Vecna for that.

Oh, and the best part about the new favored class system? They dropped the race-based bullshit. Players now choose their character’s favored class at first level.

The second thing I want to mention before getting into the classes themselves is the new rate of feat acquisition. In 3.5 characters earned feats at a rate of one every three levels. And for the entire time I played 3.5, I complained that this was simply too slow. As I repeatedly put it: individual feats simply aren’t good enough for me to look forward to them for three levels.

In Pathfinder, the rate has been bumped up to one new feat every other level. And while this might not seem like much, it’s exactly what I think is needed to make feat acquisition move at a pace which doesn’t feel overly slow. A fact helped, I think, by the fact that feats have been buffed a little as well. But I’ll discuss that later.

I’ll discuss individual classes in Part 2.

The Girl and the Granite Throne: Chapter One

The Girl and the Granite Throne: Chapter OneImmar Twistfinger strolled casually through the countryside, dressed in a blue robe, with a pointed, wide brimmed hat. It was a ridiculous outfit, but he found that it occasionally helped to look the way most peasants imagined a wizard ‘should’ look. And today was likely to be such a day. While speaking with a priest this morning, Immar had been advised that his god wanted him to meet someone on the Shildhaven trade road today.

Sometimes he thought the gods took pleasure in being cryptic, just to amuse themselves watching their followers fumble about trying to follow their instructions.

It was nearing mid day now, and Immar had been strolling since just after breakfast. He’d passed a few travelers, but none seemed to him worthy of a deific message. There had been a young woman shapely enough to be a celestial creature, but Immar doubted his libido was a matter of divine concern.

As he passed through a small fishing village he’d not visited before, he saw a small group of children standing around, and heard indistinguishable shouting from the tiny mob. In all likelihood they were throwing bones or partaking in some other childish pastime. Immar remained only vaguely aware of them as he scanned the rest of the village for anything which stood out. As he continued down the road, though, Immar saw that what the children surrounded was not a game, but another child. A young girl, unless he missed his guess.

The other children were hitting her with sticks, and kicking dirt on her. The kind of simple minded cruelty reserved for goblins, and children. Immar had just resolved to frighten the little cretins away from the poor child, when a man from the village interceded before he could, shouting loud enough that Immar could hear him.

“You little beasts! Leave her alone before I tan every one of your hides and drag you to your parents by the scruff of your necks!”

The children complied without argument, collecting into smaller groups and moving off in different directions and, Immar hoped, less cruel forms of play.

With the children now gone, the wizard could get a better look at the young girl, and could see why the children tormented the poor creature. Her face was a mess. A large, unnaturally puffy scar took up most of the left side of her face, devouring her eye, her ear, and large tufts of hair, leaving her red locks thin enough that her scalp was visible on one side.

Immar slowed a bit, impressed by the sheer brutality of her disfigurement. What could possibly leave that kind of horrible mark on a child?

Then he noticed one of the larger boys from before come out from behind a nearby tree and move slowly up behind the girl as she was pulling herself to her feet and dusting off her dress. The boy pushed her to the ground, and Immar was close enough now to hear his taunting.

“Pretty girl, pretty girl, you’re so beautiful.” His tone was beyond sarcasm. It was contemptuous, even hateful. The girl lay on her face, and she appeared so defeated that Immar quickened his pace to teach the little brat some manners. But before he could reach her, the boy grabbed her shoulders, spun her around–and got stabbed in the eye with the pointed stick the girl was clinging to like a dagger.

With her other hand, the girl grabbed the boy by his tunic, and pulled her face close to his, whispering something the wizard couldn’t hear. She then pushed off of the boy, knocking him to the ground before he scrambled to his feet and ran off towards the village. The stick was still stuck in his eye, which bled freely. The organ was probably ruined.

Immar stopped dead in his tracks, stunned. He was only a dozen paces from the girl now, just staring at her back as she watched her attacker flee. If her appearance had not intrigued him before, her quick minded and decisive ferociousness most certainly had. Moving close enough to speak without shouting, Immar asked,

“What did you say to him?”

The girl jumped and turned around, startled.

“Who are you?!” she shot back, clearly distressed by an adult presence so soon after she’d half blinded the boy. Rather than answer her, Immar said

“He deserved what you gave him. I won’t tell anyone. But what makes you so sure he won’t?”

“Everyone will make fun of him if they know.” the girl said, appearing to relax as she shifted her attention to examining the wizard. Immar was silent as she did so, and after only a moment she spoke again. “You’re an Illuminan.” She stated, without any question in her tone.

Before, Immar had been stunned. Now he couldn’t help but let his mouth drop open for a moment. Most humans had never even heard of Illumians, assuming that the lighted runes circling Immar’s head were the result of his wizardry, not his heritage. None the less, he corrected her.

“It is pronounced ‘Illumian.'” he said.

“I knew that!” the girl shouted. Immar didn’t press the point.

“How do you know about Illumians?” he asked instead.

“Vicar Tolkris lets me use his library sometimes.” she replied, gesturing towards a small stone building with the symbol of the god Pelor on the door.

Once more Immar was taken aback. Most peasant humans he had met were barely literate, yet this child apparently took an interest in study, and at an age of no more than seven or eight! The wizard had no doubt that this remarkable girl was the one he had been sent to to meet.

“I’m still curious; what did you say to that boy, after you wounded him?”

The girl’s eyes dropped to the ground, her fear of Immar as an adult apparently returned. He guessed she had been punished for a sharp tongue before.

Nervously, she said “I told him that now he can be pretty too.”

Immar had to suppress a boisterous laugh at that, and knelt to put himself at eye level with the girl.

“What is your name, young human?”

“Erin.” she said simply.

“Well, Erin, how would you like to be a wizard?”

Erin’s mother was more difficult to convince than the girl herself had been.

“She’s seven summers old!” the woman shouted, becoming distressed as Immar continued to press her.

He gritted his teeth as subtly as he could manage. He had to take this child as his apprentice. If not for the will of the gods, then simply because she deserved it.

“How long can your daughter be happy with the books at the chapel?” Immar asked.

“He’s right, Mother.” Erin chimed in, not one to be left out of adult conversations.

“And even if she could be, what future is there for her in a village this small? The boys who throw rocks at her now won’t show her any more love when she becomes a woman.”

“Hey!” Erin shouted, turning on Immar angrily. He pressed onward.

“And how effective can a one eyed fisherwoman really be, anyway?”

“HEY!” Erin shouted again, louder this time. “I’m the fourth best spear fisher in this village!”

Immar turned to look at her.

“I really must learn to stop being surprised by you. I apologize for assuming.” he said, before looking back to lock gazes with Erin’s mother. “But that only goes to demonstrate my main point. Erin is made to face greater challenges than those offered through the eternal struggle between fish and fisher. Let me give her the tools to do that.”

“Please mom!” Erin begged.

Her mother looked back and forth between her daughter, and the wizard who wanted to take her away. Tears began to appear on the woman’s eyelids.

“Is this really what you want, Errie? You know you can’t change your mind once you do this.”

Erin seemed a little surprised by that, and turned to look at Immar for confirmation.

“It’s true.” he said. “I live very far from here, and I am a very busy wizard. I cannot be bothered with an apprentice who is not dedicated to her craft.”

Erin’s face was as serious as a seven year old’s face had ever been. But it only a took her a moment to return her gaze to her mother.

“Yes, mom. I want to.” uttered with the solemnity of a soldier.

The woman stepped back until her feet met the edge of a chair, and slumped into it, bringing her hands up to cover her face. When she removed them, Immar saw her try to hide the tears she wiped away.

“Alright.” she said, sounding suddenly lonely.

Immar nodded, and moved to the side of the room to begin casting a spell while Erin and her mother made their goodbyes. He heard the woman telling her daughter to be good, and not to forget that she was loved. By the time the woman’s heavy sobbing had quieted, the spell had completed, creating a portal in the center of the room.

“Come, Erin.” Immar said.

“Just a moment!” she shouted, and ran into the next room. She returned shortly with a bag slung over her shoulder, and a fishing spear in one hand. Immar could see the leg of a stuffed toy sticking out of the bag. The wizard nodded, approving. Nothing about wizardry discouraged a fondness for possessions.

Immar then placed his hand on Erin’s back, and turned once more towards her mother.

“You are giving her a great gift. She will always thank you for that.”

Before the woman could respond, the wizard and his apprentice stepped through the portal, into a tower several days travel away.

“Welcome home,” Immar said.

The Girl and the Granite Throne: Prologue

The Girl and the Granite Throne TopbannerAlong a muddy road through the woodlands of Shieldhaven province trundled the black caravan. Three carriages pulled by six spindly horse-shaped figures shrouded in black cloth. Guiding the horses were human-shaped figures–no less spindly in their frame, and so buried beneath black robes that no other distinguishing feature between them could be found. The only sound as the caravan passed was the squeaking of the six axles, and slosh of hooves moving in and out of mud. Those who saw it pass thought it to be part of some funerary rite. A few even removed their hats and bowed their heads as the carriages passed, out of respect for the dead. In a manner of speaking they were correct to do so.

For I was very much dead.

As the last dim light illuminating the clouds faded into darkness, I flung open the door of my casket, and took a deep breath of air I no longer needed to function. I climbed out of my carriage and onto the roof to get a good look at our surroundings. I recognized them. The fishing village we were approaching was not far from the hidden mountain pass which would lead to my stronghold–the stronghold of Vecna’s power on the material plane. With my tireless skeletal minions marching ceaselessly, I would arrive long before I needed to sleep through another day. Long enough, in fact, that I had time to stop and satisfy my hungers here in this small, and delightfully defenseless village.

Instantly my form disintegrated, leaving behind a swarm of buzzing mosquitoes. As one, guided by my consciousness, the swarm moved into the air to grant a better view of the people below. There appeared to be an informal gathering in the center of town. Torches stuck in the ground, and bonfires over which food was being prepared provided light to the few dozen people sitting, talking, and drinking around tables. I eyed them one by one, wishing my form had lips I could lick in anticipation.

My gaze came to rest on a voluptuous young woman flirting with a boy about her age. I slid my many hundreds of eyes along her graceful curves slowly, savoring her casual sensuality. I would have lusted for her in life. I don’t know if it’s just my imagination, but the ones I want to fuck always taste the sweetest.

Single minded, I guided the swarm in a steep descent towards my meal. As the flitting insects began to skirt in and out of her vision, she waved them away with her hand as though they were any other bug. As they grew in number she turned to look, and at the sight of the cloud of insects gathering behind her, she screamed in terror. That gave me more pleasure than a dozen such girls could have given me in life.

I wrapped her in my swarm before coalescing into my “natural” shape–the pinpricks my bugs had made in her neck widening to accommodate my teeth. She struggled valiantly, screaming curses and calling for her nearby friends and family. But my unnatural life had granted me unnatural strength. She would have had more success struggling free of iron manacles than against my grip. And by the time her form grew limp, and grey in my arms, her fleeing boy was only two dozen stumbling steps away.

Spitting the woman to the side like the shell of a nut, I leapt into the air, alighting three paces in front of the boy. I heard him fumble to a stop, and turned just in time to see the oaf fall on his ass. I scowled, and held out my hand to the side. From the darkness, a cloud of bats appeared, and flew around my hand in a frenzy. When they dispersed, I held a great sword. So large a dwarf would have needed two hands to wield it.

“Coward’s blood is too bitter.” I said, before bringing the sword down to cleave the boy through from shoulder to hip.

The group was fully alert now, some grabbing rocks and sticks, the slightly wiser among them grabbing the torches mounted in the ground. The wisest ran to the houses, calling the town to arms as if it would do them some good. I took a moment to look around. The young lady had done an admirable job satiating my hunger for blood, and her lover my lust for slaughter. But the night couldn’t end without causing someone a pain I knew would last long after I left.

Then I saw the woman with the baby, hiding beneath the table.

Moving at no great speed, I walked towards her. I opened fatal wounds in four brave–but foolish–attackers in the space it took to reach her, without breaking step. The mother locked eyes with me, and I could see the panic fill them as she realized I was coming for her. She tried to climb out from under the table to flee, but a kick from my boot sent the table spinning, and knocked her to the ground.

I knelt, ignoring several large rocks as they bounced off my back and head, and took hold of the baby’s leg. I held the child in front of me as I stood. It was a girl, couldn’t have been more than six months old. I grinned, baring my teeth at the mother. She stared at me from the ground, frozen in suspense and terror. She jumped with fright when, suddenly, I threw my great sword to the side, burring it hilt deep in a young woman charging me with a sword. Apparently they’d found some weapons, useless though they might be.

Slowly, deliberately, I drew Vecna’s dagger from its sheath at my hip. The pommel was shaped like a dismembered hand, clasping an eye. And from the eye shot the blade, a glare made of steel. The dagger is sacred to the followers of Vecna– intended for sacrifices offered by only Vecna’s highest ranking cleric on the material plane: myself.

I held the baby high then. I couldn’t see, but I was sure that the cattle surrounding me were lowering the weapons in fear of what they were about to behold. Slowly, I brought the tip of Vecna’s Glare to the baby girl’s left eye, not quite touching it yet. I wanted everyone to see this.

The crackle of the fires was the only sound in the terrified silence the moment before I plunged the dagger up to its hilt in the child’s eye. And for a moment after that, the silence continued, the villagers too shocked at first to respond. But shock quickly became rage. In the moment before they charged, I dropped the child, letting gravity pull it off the blade. Just as the first blade swung through my form, I became again a swarm of insects, flitting off into the darkness to rejoin my carriage for the ride home.

It wasn’t until months later that I would notice the tiniest of flecks of metal missing from the blade of Vecna’s Glare, and wonder where it had gone to.

To Battle!

Knights Engaged in Mounted Battle
The Battle of Bosworth by Graham Turner

Even after years of running D&D games of all shapes and sizes, I still run a dud from time to time. One such time was just a couple weeks ago, when I thought it would be great fun to give my players two days to direct some settlers in the construction of a town, which would then be attacked by Zombies. While I stand by the idea as a solid one, it played out poorly. Granted, most of the difficulty came from the fact that the game was played online, I think. But aside from that, I’m starting to find that I’m simply not very good at running combat encounters.

Given how central combat is to the Dungeons and Dragons & Pathfinder games, being bad at running it has made things difficult for me throughout my DMing career. In the last few days, as I’ve been reflecting on this fact, I’ve started to see that almost every combat I’ve ever run has taken place on an open field at noon on a Summer’s day. In light of that, I’ve made a concerted effort to think of things I could do which would make battle more entertaining for my players.

Without a doubt, the most important thing conclusion I’ve come to is that I need to make a concerted effort to make my environments more detailed and interesting. There’s almost never a reason for combat to take place in an environment which doesn’t provide some kind of interesting tactical options to the player. Even in the most plain environments imaginable (for example, a desert) there are things the GM should be aware of (such as the poor footing offered by sand, or the fact that visibility is limited due to the rise and fall of sand dunes.)

And really, how often is a desert, or a plane, or any other near-featureless environment going to be part of a game?

In a forest there should be trees for players to climb, or bash foes into. Now and again there should be cliffs or other falling hazards for players to beware of, and use to their advantage. In a city there could be anything from an entrance to a sewer to drop down into, to a criss-crossing web of clothes lines to climb up.

And if static parts of an environment can make things more interesting, certainly living elements can have the same effect. In the wilds, combat may take place in some beast’s hunting grounds, or even in a cave which a dire bear is about to return to. And while a noncombatant character is most likely going to try to stay out of the way of a dangerous wizard’s dual, when there are 100 onlookers gathering around the back-and-forth casting, there’s a good chance one of them will throw a rock at the caster they would prefer to see lose.

And speaking of thrown rocks, there are a multitude of situations where improvised weapons would be appropriate and flavorful. Not every hoodlum in a bar is wearing a short sword. Or hells, there could easily be cities with bans on weapons. The players could be forced to grab broken bottles themselves when faced with sword-wielding thieves. Or, away from civilization, one of the goblins they’re fighting might withdraw, only to appear on the ledge above 3 or 4 rounds later, pushing desperately on a large boulder.

Even if the players are fighting folks who do have weapons, they don’t always need to have them in hand. Giving the players a round to make use of the element of surprise while 30 goblin warriors all scramble for the weapons racks would allow the players to really feel like taking the enemy by surprise meant more than getting one standard or move action at the beginning of combat.

Weather and seasonal elements have also been severely underutilized in my games–and not just in combat. Snow leaves tracks and makes it difficult to move, while piles of leaves in the fall could hide traps to make up for the fact that the branches are too bare to hide stalking enemies. Torrents of wind and falling rain can disrupt spell casting, and darkness can offer partial concealment against ranged attacks.

I’d be interested to hear from anybody else who has ideas on what kind of extra environmental options GMs can make use of.

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Thoughts and theories on tabletop games.