Monday, September 28, 2020

Some more thoughts on Pathfinder 2nd Edition after running it for a year: low level fights, hit points and healing

My Pathfinder 2E campaign on Saturday has wrapped and we're actually diving into D&D 5E again for a bit now, but my Wednesday group just finished a short Call of Cthulhu campaign and is now back to Pathfinder 2nd Edition. Here are some more comments on it after running Pathfinder 2E for over a year, and a few comments on comparison and contrast to D&D 5E, especially as I get back in to it and notice the rather interesting differences (especially in the feel of it).

Most immediately....something which I can say for sure is true at low level in both games, is that low level combat can be as deadly as a GM is willing to push it. If you ignore the XP budget rules in D&D 5E you can get an unintentionally lethal encounter, sure. But if you ignore it even a little bit in Pathfinder 2E you get an interesting result, in which the characters might have a stressful fight for their life. The fact that PCs in Pathfinder start with more hit points at level 1 (and the fact that the game is balanced around it) is stark and noticeable, but it also means that while players can be "in the game" a bit longer in tough fights, everything also tends to hit with more force and damage, too. 

Put another way: D&D 5E fights feel a tad anemic, and I am having to adjust to the fact that monsters have a lot of hit points even at low level....but the more balanced starting hit points of PCs in Pathfinder mean you can take a hit or two without worrying too much. At low levels, at least, it's safe to say both games are fun to play but the tactical nuance of PF2E stands're having fun in D&D but things get interesting as well as fun in PF2E.

PF2E characters also have a wide range of options to resort to healing. Even without a conventional healer you can probably survive with careful decision making and judicious use of treat wounds. D&D 5E characters have an advantage with the hit dice recovery mechanic, but if you don't have a healer in the group (or a bunch of fighters or something with second wind) it's possible to find yourself in trouble faster. D&D 5E leads to an interesting cadence, in which you find immediate threats to be potentially dire but as long as you find a place to rest a full day you can fully recover. PF2E definitely gives you options for healing, and it seems to encourage the group to camp out, often for an hour or three depending on who needs some first aid and who has magic healing, so getting back to full after a good period of rest is also possible. However, in battle most PF2E classes have some range of recovery options...eventually....but like 5E you may need specific classes to benefit from immediate in-combat healing. Without that option, your best bet his to spend your hero points to recover after you drop.

In encounter design for low level groups I'm also noticing something interesting, about which I will speak more in the next post: in brief, as I mentioned above, designing a lethal encounter in PF2E can be a really interesting experience and the PCs might pull their butts out of the fire. It might not feel fair, but survival is possible, even if it means escape. This is in contrast with D&D 5E, where I have found that a lethal encounter generally is just sad and unfair; the group which wades in against an unbalanced encounter simply may not have enough hit points to survive the brutal thrashing they experience on round one. 

When I say lethal encounter, I mean something over the "extreme difficulty" XP budget but not, say, more than double the expectation. In PF2E for a level 1 group that's typically about 160 XP or more in threats, and in D&D 5E it's around 450-500 XP after adjusting for # of creatures. Oh yeah....that's something too, getting used to adding XP then dividing by total # of PCs in D&D 5E is a bit of a "whuhhh oh my god I forgot it was done this way" moment for me. I don't like milestones, but I have to say....I love the "flat XP: what you calculated is what everyone gets" math of PF2E.

Monday, September 21, 2020

The Secret to Success with Roll20's RNG

 It's become something of a joke that Roll20's random number generator for dice doesn't seem to like the players much. The reality is that it's...well....probably averaging out where it realistically should, and the GM occasionally does see a bad streak of rolls too, but of course GMs get to roll a lot more dice over time so those bad luck streaks often die out soon enough.

In games that are player facing like Cypher System, you might think this would lead to better averages over time (or as many hills as valleys at least), but this doesn't always seem to work out. Some of my players are about fed up with Roll20, which can seem to give them alarmingly consistent failure streaks. 

I have a theory about this, born of my own player experience in a related VTT, Astral. It goes like this:

Some players are cautious, and tend to build "average characters" who can do a lot of stuff reasonably well, but not much stuff very, very well. I'm often one of those....if you've ever built a Call of Cthulhu character, for example, who rarely had more than 50% in a skill, but also ended up with a lot of below 50% skills as a result, you might be one of these.

Other players suffer from a different problem: they don't really learn the game they are playing, or they miss the key elements of the system that help them out. These players might often try to do things and fail but miss opportunities to improve their odds of success or overlook strategies that could help them out. Some simply try to do things they probably shouldn't, or misunderstand their characters' abilities.

In VTT environments there's an entire other possible category: setting up your die scripts and forgetting modifiers of relevance. It's less common, as other players with better familiarity may catch your error, but it could happen.

A final category are: players who don't get the quirks of their GM. This one's pretty basic, but if you as a player know your GM frequently calls for history, society or perception tests then maybe you shoudl focus on those skills. This is a bit metagamist, but it's a valid strategy if your personal goal is "succeed at die roll tests more often."

Anyway, the result of these examples is players who fail more often than not at die rolls and are often quite flustered about it. I have at least one player who I feel is a combination of two or more of these situations, as he tends to learn the rules through play but overlooks the strategic elements of, as an example, how the die pool risk/reward mechanic of Cypher System plays out. If you play Cypher System like any other old RPG you are essentially doomed to failure. Conversely, when we play Pathfinder 2nd Edition I feel that most players (even the ones who are a bit shaky on the mechanics) tend to succeed about as often as you expect due to the fact that Pathfinder's probabilities and math are shockingly on target. If everyone is failing miserably in a Pathfinder 2E game on Roll20 it may say more about the GM than it does about the system or Roll20's RNG!

So what's a strategy for success? Well, here's some advice, and it may apply beyond VTT with virtual dice, too:

If you want to succeed, and your system allows it, try to find those 3-4 things you really want to be able to succeed in and max them out as best you can. If you're playing Call of Cthulhu and you want to spot hidden as often as possible then jam points in to it. You will sacrifice broad versatility but gain greater average success in those things you are good at. And it should go without saying: when you play the game, try to do things that are relevant to those skills!

Understand the game you are playing. Make sure you appreciate the probabilities so that when you are in combat or a tense encounter with die rolls that you think about your odds of success before you take on a task. Understand that if you make a Level 4 Speed Defense roll in Cypher without buying it down that the odds of failure are 55% but if you just spent some Speed you could reduce that failure rate to 40% or less. And when the dice still go against's okay. You tried. The game is, ultimately, a game and not a wish fulfillment engine; we have video games for that.

As GM, make sure you are mindful of realistic encounters for your players' level of expertise and understanding. If your players seem to be struggling with understanding the mechanics (and the odds) then try to tailor the experience a bit as a teaching lesson. Coaching players with some learning encounters can be a wise move. Remember! You don't have a GM screen and you can't fudge dice in a VTT environment (well, not easily, as far as I know). As such, you need to respect the mechanics more, and the arbitrariness of the dice more.


Friday, September 18, 2020

The Conan Rabbit Hole - The Howard/Carter/de Camp Deep Dive Problem (and proof vitriolic fandom is ancient)

Every now and then something accidentally reminds me that one of my favorite fictional properties, Conan the Barbarian, along with one of my favorite genres (sword & sorcery fiction) has had the grainy, crusted history of a Maximum Fan Blowout for well over 60+ years now.

It starts, often, like this: I get something in an email or I am browsing my book or ebook collection and I notice one of my many tomes featuring tales of Conan. I have an extensive collection that includes the recent very thorough and illustrated tales of Conan reconstructed from Robert E. Howard's original publications, as well as the complete series published by Lancer/Ace in different editions. At one time I had virtually all of the Tor pastiche series books, though over time gave them up as to be honest, probably about 20% of them actually had merit and the rest bordered on painful, embarrassing reading.

The problem with Conan/Howard fandom starts with the Lancer/Ace editions. In the sixties the Conan property was revived by L. Sprague de Camp who presided as editor and writer in conjunction with Lin Carter and Bjorn Nyberg. Other authors of the time, including favorites such as Karl Edward Wagner also contributed tales to the Conan universe in this time (Road of Kings remains one of my favorites) and the revival got Conan effectively into print and mainstream for a time. 

The Lancer/Ace series of 12 books were not only my introduction to Conan but also to Howard as an author (as well as Carter, de Camp and the rest) and my formal indoctrination into reading around age 9-10 as a major pastime. So for me, any criticism of this series is tempered by the fact that it server an incredibly important milestone in my life. Keep that in mind as we dive down the rabbit hole here.

So, when I look at these books, I am occasionally reminded that I would love to see the series released in a modern edition, something which is in better shape than the medley of aging, yellowed tomes with cracking spines I have on my shelf. Even an ebook edition would be great, right? Well....

The problem here is complicated, but it starts first with the really rabid fans of Robert E. Howard who for many and varied reasons took great umbrage with L. Sprague de Camp's control over the property and his rewrites of the Conan tales in these editions. A search online readily brings up countless archived and ancient posts and restorations of older writings pre-internet from various fans of Conan and Howard spend a great deal of time nit-picking de Camp's edits and rewrites of Howard stories in this series. The discussion on these ancient preservations are often shockingly impressive at just how grim and vicious they are. 

Reading and getting worked up about these ancient diatribes is hardly worth it; many of the original authors lamenting the purity of Howard are dead or beyond any point where debate would have any merit at all. It is best to read them as a moment of fan frenzy captured in weird amber, a snapshot of what this looked like before the internet, from a time when chapbooks and fanzines were the medium of communication.

Still, it frustrates me. Regardless of how people felt about de Camp as editor and contributor to Howard's Conan stories, he did something of significant import, and I owe most of my interest and hobby focus for pretty much the entirety of my life to his adaptations of Howard's Conan into a coherent twelve tome narrative. I enjoyed de Camp's writing,* and though I also relish the intrinsic style and feel of Howard's original works I can see why de Camp made so many of the editing choices he did. I also quite enjoyed his own stories, even the ones which he rather heavily re-adapted into Conan stories from other non Conan writings of Howard. It's all good, essentially, and it is much of the reason I feel that today Conan is a thing many people know and love. Reading Howards original tales is a great experience, but de Camp made Conan work for a generation that was growing warm to the idea of trilogies and worlds built out over coherent narratives in a series, and Conan as Howard wrote him might very well have remained obscure and forgotten, much as almost every other character Howard created remains today. 

Besides, I imagine that the wheel turns ever round. There is probably a nest of fandom right now stewing with seething rage that Conan is a Marvel character who you can (literally) find next to Venom and Wolverine, fighting side by side. I wonder what the old grognards of yore might imagine of such blasphemy.....for me, though, it is enough to know that a comic book with Venom and Conan has absolutely gotten my son to ask me, "Who's Conan" and that, in turn, has given me an opportunity to show him a much wider range of fiction, especially as he is reaching the same age when I, too, first discovered it.

*Lest Darkness Fall and The Fallible Fiend remain two of my favorite books to this day.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Further Thoughts - Dungeon Crawls and VTT go well together?

White Star as a short diversion proved to be a mistake I think, not maybe because I wouldn't enjoy it under some better circumstances, but the intrinsically more whimsical and camp elements it lends itself to as a weird pastiche of cinematic scifi I think maybe works better when I am A: in the right mood (which it turns out I am not right now for many reasons) and B: such humor and interaction conveys much better at a live table where it is easier to interact with people and convey intended humor or camp elements. 

The beauty of D&D and PF2E is they have enormous levels of support online and one can easily throw down battle maps and virtual minis which means even on a horrible day I can easily run (and enjoy) a basic dungeon crawl. With the sort of horrifying work months I've been having lately, being able to just run a good basic dungeon crawl actually sounds like a good way to destress. Must discuss with group!

Thursday, September 10, 2020

White Star Session One, VTT Burnout, and the Fun of Watching Someone New to Gaming

 So this week three things of note in my ongoing blog, now with exactly 0% video!

White Star Session One

This finally got off the ground last Saturday with a nice introductory session. The good news is: White Star is easy to run, and can make for some good old cowboys and aliens kind of fun.

The bad news is: I am old, jaded, and felt a bit like maybe I'd made a mistake after all. I (at the curmudgeonly age of 49) find myself no longer that excited about simple cinematic shoot-em-up action games anymore; I might like them if the rules support a more dynamic experience, though, and I kept thinking to myself, "I shoulda used Savage Worlds." Sigh....

But! That brings up this item:

New Gamer Excitement

My son, who is almost nine, insisted we let him in on things so my wife and I had him roll up his first White Star character, an alien bounty hunter. He had a blast, and his presence in the game helped "ground" me in the reality that while I was very, very tired of the same old same old, it was completely new and exciting to him and he had a blast. I am going to try and channel some of the excess energy he radiated to motivate myself to make a game that focuses hard on an experience he will enjoy.

However, to some extend I realize that all of this is underlying a deeper issue....

VTT Burnout

Not merely Roll20 burnout, but VTT burnout in general (Astral is the other one I am dabbling in). I am one of many gamers who enjoyed tabletop gaming precisely because it involved a tabletop and people sitting around it. If you've ever been a GM who was mildly annoyed at all the laptops on the game table, then VTT must be excruciating. It changes the overall experience in subtle but ultimately unsatisfying ways. 

Strengths I have identified with VTT: battle maps and minis are much easier to handle in a virtual table top. So running a methodical dungeon crawl with maps and virtual minis is very, very easy. It is also easy to share handouts and visual props. 

Weakness include: literally everything else. You lack visual queues from people sitting next to you. Audio is a perpetual pain and sometimes (as with Astral) requires using other services such as Discord. Rolling virtual dice is deeply unsatisfying and the die rollers are often a pain in the ass to work with. If your game is not specifically supported and falls outside the design scope of your preferred service that can be a severe limitation. Not physically being able to be at the table with you cohorts in gaming is frustrating, even if it is understandable in this day and age. 

Worst of all, it feels tedious and creates an unfortunate comparison and contrast against two other things: if you are also spending hours in online meetings at work going home to do so with a game can be unpleasant; a case of Too Much Screen Time. And worse yet, if you are into computer gaming, it exacerbates the already present issue of "do I waste time with this VTT experience or chase the delectable dragon's tail that is instantaneous gratification in a video game?" 

I have no solutions, except to remind myself that sooner or later we might see vaccinations or reliable treatments for COVID-19 manifest and maybe then things can get a bit more normal again. I'd offer to return to in-person gaming but almost everyone at my gaming table is either in a higher risk group or exposed to environments where you could contract COVID, or both. So...yeah, not a good idea to tempt fate like that.