I’ve made little secret of how I’ve come to dislike Pathfinder. Oh sure, the core system all in itself can be played properly, assuming you spend hours on your character sheet or invest in a handholding database program like Hero Lab, but even with that, the setting is strongly encouraging of the type of play involving intricate backstories, and combat-focused, on - rails gameplay with closely tailored challenge levels.
Worse, society play, back when I bothered, was very much on rails. More on that later.
Of course, there’s now “Starfinder” and a Pathfinder second edition, and I could care less. I’d spent enough in core and supplemental rule PDFs and books that I had little enough interest in continuing just for the expense alone.
Then I found ACKs and I never looked back.
Let’s address the problems I saw with it. The following were true of Pathfinder 1 specifically when I was still running “society play” modules. If not true today, they are still present in many games, so “why these are bad” is still generally applicable.
- Pathfinder modules, espacially Society “Adventures” remove any real player agency - and like roller coaster rides are calibrated to present the appearance of a challenge.
- XP is heavily combat biased, or alternately in society play, “show up and survive” biased. Unlike Paranoia though, the adventures are carefully balanced to bs survivable by a party meeting the “rating” of the adventures.
- Little real timekeeping
- Whatever is not permitted is forbidden.
Adventures on Rails
The biggest difference between society play and regular adventures is the XP and advancement paradigm. Worse, for “society” play, there was a standard set of adventures out for the year ( you could play older ones), with limits for how many times a player or character could run a specific adventure.
You could play open sandbox, but society play, specifically set up for drop-in/out play of arbitrary groups of people at conventions or for groups of fluctuating players, had to be played with approved adventures, and no house rules.
In either case, you had a goal. There were a couple fights staged. There was a big bad. You might need to take him prisoner. Rarely was there a heist. You might even have two branching paths that of course met at the final encounter. You might explore the rooms of a tower in a different order
Much like your average FPS campaign (such as Half LIfe), you have some freedom to wander the map, but the levels you visit are pretty set. Even your average JRPG like Zelda or the early final fantasy games gave you far more freedom.
In short, the player’s agency was in practice limited to picking what applicable skill he would use to find a clue (and roll the dice), and how he handled combat. You might not progress until you solve a particular puzzle, but if you completed the “adventure”, you will have cleared that puzzle, fought the big bad, etc.
And some play acting.
It also put all of the onus of the work on the GM or module writer. All of the monsters had to be carefully selected based on the difficulty level the characters would be expected to survive. Entire pages dedicated to single encounters explaining what is going on in the
ride story, motivations, etc. All preset, no real surprises.
The solution is to avoid “adventures” entirely, and use modules or supplements sparingly. Classic Traveller had a “Patrons” supplement with dozens of starter hooks. In the realm of ACKs, there are city guides with hooks, Lairs and Encounters, and the B2 inspired Sinister Stone of Sakkara. These can be dropped in whole or in part into nearly any map. Get a basic map and “lay of the land” together and let the players discover what lies there. Let the random rolls give you interesting results. Maybe the players ally with the orcs to kill the bugbear instead of just killing them. Lay out some possibilities when the players are stuck wondering what to do - and if the players pick a choice or find a valid answer that you hadn’t considered in your “key”, roll with it.
XP is combat biased
Pathfinder Roleplaying Game characters advance in level by defeating monsters, overcoming challenges, and completing adventures…
If you go to page 398 and 399 of the original rulebook, encounters are discussed, and how to determine the “challenge rating” of the encounter to thus determine the appropriate XP to award for an encounter (creature, trap, etc). While creatures in the “Bestiary” have an explicit amount of XP, the CR is only loosely related. There’s also a table for gauging XP ranges based on the CR, especially for traps which have a challenge rating but no specific XP. In short, you get XP for:
- Overcoming or surviving traps.
- “Defeating”* monsters.
- “Story Awards” assigned by the GM in direct proportion to the average player level for “when players conclude a major storyline or make an important accomplishment.”
Sure, “defeating” monsters may be sneaking into the fortress and stealing the gold without even stabbing a single dwarf…. but the very design of the tables for adding additional CR for numbers says otherwise. If a cave system has 50 orcs and a chieftan,. and you sneak in out, bypassing only four, did you defeat all 50? Did you even actually “defeat” even those four?
OK, so you “overcame a challenge” - cool. You get “Story Awards.” How much? Did you overcome all 50 orcs when you fooled the chief with a skill roll?
So yes, you can read the rules in a way that you can get XP without entering combat, but it leans much heavier on GM fiat for perceived role playing than, say, “XP for gold”. And XP is still centered heavily on defeating monsters, however you interpret that.
Combat is the assumption baked into the aforementioned adventure modules, and into how challenge ratings explicitly are used to calibrate the number of opponents faced. It’s the assumption of many of the players as well.
Speaking of society play adventures - the advancement system there is literally a participation trophy. There is some player impact depending on how many of the supplemental goals they can check off, but you would get sufficient advancement points that you were guaranteed to advance a level every 3-6 modules.
Again - your only choices are how you act out your character, what tactical and skill choices you make. You only really affect your advancement rate to a degree, and maybe which path brings you to the finishing point. Complete the adventure whether you kill one crocodile or 30 orcs, and get advancement points.
Other than “no XP” like Traveller, you have systems Like ACKs where, while there may be some XP for killing or directly defeating monsters, you mostly get XP for gold. Is XP for gold perfect? No. It too is subject to GM fiat to pad or thin out the reward relative to the treasure tables. But it markedly changes the incentives. Especially if combat is deadlier than 3.x and higher D&D and D20/Pathfinder.
If you encounter a dragon in the wilderness, a clever low level party can figure out how to raid the lair without fighting it and get rich - and get the power and prestige (and level advancement) for their wiliness. Tracking it back to it’s lair for the treasure is suddenly far more important for your advancement than attacking it immediately. Bluffing a party of orcs, or pulling off that heist unseen, and keeping your characters alive without getting a knife in the ribs, is worth something.
In short - combat is on the table - but so is anything else that gets you ahead. Only a fool gets into a fair fight. And Pathfinder tries to make them all “fair”.
As torches still last an hour, spells have various effect durations, and rations are bought by the day, with some other daily expenses listed, it is possible to play this with 1:x time, but again, time tracking outside of the tactical or a specific adventure is limited.
And again, in practice, it’s discouraged. Not only is there no AD&D style “training time”, but there’s a dearth of “down time” activities. Spell research is “left up to the GM” (p219) with a recommendation of 1 week per level. Learning spells is via copying scrolls - understandable - or having a couple granted with each rise in level.
Worse, again, is society play. Characters may go months or hours between playing modules set in vastly different parts of the world. Presumably, time has passed. How much is utterly arbitrary, with no real need to track living expenses or anything else.
I know I’m not the first and one of many who have spoken of time, especially 1:1 time. I can rattle off a number of advantages it brings.
I had not really considered how unmooring from time, again, encourages drama club and narrative play, and divorces your characters from simulationism and verisimilitude. Like getting on a roller coaster, it’s about the “experience”. When you hop off the ride you’re in a weird stasis. You may find yourself repeating an experience like a nightmarish Groundhog Day. Any sense of continuity between one cahracter and another is utterly shattered.
Whatever is Not Permitted is Forbidden
I’ve mentioned this before.
Pathfinder is an odd duck of a skills based and class based system. And all Skill based systems have two issues.
First - just like I named this segment - things start to tend towards “if there’s a skill for it, and you don’t have it, tough luck”
There are PF “Society play” modules with secret goals relying on special skills. It’s bad enough that if you fail the roll, you’re screwed. That’s tough (made worse because you can’t hang around and keep searching). The really unforgivable part is that, because they are “knowledge” based, if you haven’t put points in it, your simply screwed. “Knowledge” skills in PF1 have to be trained. That sounds fine - I wouldn’t expect person who’s never done drafting work to design an office building - until you factor that one of the “knowledge” categories is literally local knowledge of personalities, myths, legends, etc., of the city that your character supposedly lives in.
Secondly, a long list of skills tends to encourage a mindset that your possibilities are limited to your skill list.
ACKS has an explicit catch-all adventuring skill (implicit in D&D), so that you can pretty much give anything a shot unless it’s an obvious “trained” ability or class ability.
Traveller has a mishmash, but the general assumption is that you’re competent to try about anything, and having even 1 skill point isn’t just a “bump” in your odds, (already much more significant on 2d6 than on 1d20), but shows significant training, to the extent of making a professional, at least journeyman, living at it. Some, like starship engineering and navigation absolutely require training. There are also skills like “Vacc Suit” that characters are assumed to have at “zero” level, because the game mechanics have to track expertise, but everyone is assumed to have day-to-day experience doing whatever it is,
Is Pathfinder an RPG?
Played with the core rules, as a sandbox, it’s an overly complicated one for the effects it achieves, but it can be played like AD&D, with time, multiple characters, campaigns, parties,. and so on.
But the rules stress combat and “look at me in the spotlight.” Worse, the society play rules strip away much of the player agency, the “game” part of it, leaving behind a holographic projection of an RPG with little of the substance.
If you must play Pathfinder, avoid the adventures , and treat society play as a plague. Really start to care about time, and player agency.
Better yet, learn AD&D, or get ACKs.