Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Pathfinder 2nd edition at Level 17; Advanced Labyrinth Lord; and other musings

Used as a pivotal scene in the current PF2 campaign
At last another post! After a prolonged absence I have returned. Our big event for the last four weeks has been moving. Not far...we're still in Albuquerque, but in  a nice house in a better neighborhood with a decent commute.

Anyway, my weekly Pathfinder campaign that has been running since PF2 came out is now hitting level 17. I thought I'd make a few comments about life with Pathfinder at very high levels of play. This all with the caveat that we've been doing our gaming on Roll20 for the last three months, so keep that in mind.

First and foremost: combat in most cases feels as quick and smooth as as lower levels, although with some minor hitches. There are monsters, for example, that I think are a pain in the ass to run. This is less about the mechanical side of things and more about design; when you have a species of rats with adamantine bone and teeth, for example, that soak most physical damage then yeah, they're going to be a tougher (read: longer) fight. With the way things work Pathfinder you as GM will see a bit of the cogs behind the curtain and realize that giving something 15 resistance against physical attacks is a bit like giving something 15 extra hit points for every hit it takes of that type. There are probably easier ways to do this that make the book-keeping or math simpler, while still retaining the flavor of "made of adamantine metal" and all that connotates without the extra layer of tracking....but it's hardly a significant complaint considering how much easier everything else is to run at high level.

The second item is the one that is tripping me up a tad: as many of you know, when you get to high level things get wonky. GMs who plan for serious overland journeys, for example, may be disappointed at the wasted effort when the players simply teleport or planewalk to their destination. In PF2, there are still some "fast track" options at high level, but they are considerably more restrained and prohibitive in their use, such that my players are less likely to attempt them unless they really need to....or are backtracking. As a result, some of my campaign assumptions that they would be fantasy-jet-setting around have been stymied, and I've made up for it with NPCs providing a teleportational lift here and there to keep things moving at the expected pace. That said, it also means I need to spend more time familiarizing myself with the possible realities of travel and  high level play in PF2, and specifically how it is more tempered than in other editions.

Third, and this is an odd one: I swear that as you creep up to 20,  the power balance of +/-4 levels as the ideal safe range for encounter design has narrowed. Encounters 3 or more levels lower may take some time, but they are ultimately mostly trivial threats. Meanwhile levels of equivalent challenge to the party level are even or greater matches, and +2 levels feels about the highest level of difficulty I can throw without too much risk of death. As a note: I am keeping to the rules on pacing magic items to roughly PC level (and in some cases higher). This is an interesting contrast from prior editions, where often by level 15 or greater risk of high level PC death was mostly a conceptual space, but not a thing that anyone took seriously. Could it happen? Sure, but the hapless PC will likely get resurrected, sure. In PF2 this is different.....the risk of a TPK still feels like it exists if the PCs bite off more than they can chew, and these really high challenge level encounters in PF2 leave me wondering just how a level 20 group will take on, say, the Jabberwok which looks to me like it has a nontrivial chance of mopping the floor with half of them. 

Still....all things considered, the next time you talk to someone who complains that PF2 is swingy, just note that you are talking to someone who didn't take the time to understand the game on its own design terms. PF2 is possibly the least swingy of all iterations of D&D I've played to date, and the easiest to predict how combats will go by relative challenge level. I can very consistently identify that a fight will go a certain way by simply dropping it 2-3 CLs or increasing it 2-3 CLs, and a big part of the reason for this has entirely to do with the +/-10 degree of critical success and failure baked into the resolution system. When you are fighting inferior opponents, for example, you know their likelihood of failure with each additional attack goes up more than if they were equivalent level. Likewise, a foe of greater strength against the PCs means the PCs proportionately have greater risk of failure on iterative attacks and are wiser not to use them....meaning the tougher opponent takes even longer.

All things considered I like the fact that I can design encounters with a strong sense of how it will work out, but there are variables. My next campaign will, rather than strive to rush to level 20, focus on level 1-10 play for as long as possible. There are a metric ton of monsters and interesting things at this level of play I haven't has as much time with for the last seven levels on Saturday.

Last week my son expressed more interest in playing D&D, but told me he wants to play "your game," which I realized was Pathfinder. I've been reluctant....it's a bit more complex, but my son appears to be on the path of becoming a budding hipster,* so he wants to play that cool game, not the one the other more plebian D&D gamers are all playing (my summary of the conversation! His statement was more along the lines of "I want to play the cool game, not D&D, that's what the boring guys play." Sigh.....barely nine and he's already edition warring. 

I have tried deflecting, though, by proposing Advanced Labyrinth Lord. I feel like it's at the right level of complexity for him, probably because ALL is at the precise level of complexity that I discovered around his same age with B/X D&D and AD&D, minus the Gygaxian writing. He seems keen on it....after all, it's not "just D&D" (whatever that means to him and his generation). Either way I win as the gamer dad!

In all honesty part of me would like to run a campaign in Advanced Labyrinth Lord just as a contrasting experience, or maybe a palette cleanser to the last twenty years of D&D mechanical design. AD&D never quite frustrated with its power escalation in the ways that contemporary editions of the game (from 3rd edition on) have been capable of, and I'd love to re-explore why that might be. Could you have grossly overpowered PCs back in the day? Yes, but the etymology of how they came to be that way was often easy to decipher, and the GM's power to rectify the matter was ever present. Pathfinder 2nd edition (and D&D 5E) both feel like strong answers to a legacy of questions that started with 3rd edition in 1999-2000, but both answer this issue in ways that draw upon, at least spiritually, the 1st and 2nd editions (and B/X) of D&D. 

Anyway....we'll see. Too much to do and not enough time to game!

*Not just D&D. He lectured me at length on why he won't buy ordinary Hasbro Beyblades, only wants to save his chore money for Japanese imported Beyblades, and the risk of Chinese knockoffs. If your first question is, "What's a Beyblade?" then welcome to my club.

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