Monday, December 6, 2021

Hitting the Wall with Pathfinder 2E - what I think needs to be done to fix this game

After my latest Saturday night game of Pathfinder 2E I have decided I am probably done with the system for a while. It's not done with me, unfortunately....the players are enjoying the game and I need to get it to some sort of satisfactory close, but I have finally after two+ years run enough PF2E to realize what elements of its design are causing problems for me. It boils down like this:

1. The roll over/under 10 mechanic is one of those "sounds great on paper" concepts that just doesn't work so well in reality for PF2E It is a key reason people accuse the game of being swingy, but they would be wrong; it's actually quite predictable and the problem boils down to risk/reward factors. Players with three action points may push it against tougher opponents and fail miserably. Indeed, the math is balanced out so that fights get noticeably harder against tougher opponents much more quickly, which increases the odds that players may err in making too many iterative attacks and put themselves in a bad spot. Worse yet, they might err in making too few against easier opponents, too. If your players seem too savvy on calculating their attacks its probably because they have a Bestiary open somewhere. 

Back in the day I used to impose a variety of penalties on fumbles and a myriad bonuses on crits. The official Pathfinder 2E fumble and crit decks were a help. Today, its such a common occurance that we default to double damage on the crit and flat-footedness on the fumble because they are just so damn common....they are not special anymore. Since the +10/-10 mechanic is so deeply entrenched in PF2E design, this is unavoidable and not easy to back out. For me, the desire to return to a system where crits and fumbles are less common and more special when they happen is an aesthetic choice as well as a design preference.

2. The "add level" mechanic is a terrible idea. If I had any say, I'd advise Paizo to re-release the entire game around that section in the new Gamemastery Guide that talks about the option of stripping the level mechanic entirely (edit: by this I mean adding +1 to everything each time you level up, not the actual process of leveling up). The reasons are simple: first is that it is an illusion of improvement, and in reality all that's happening is as the players level up the GM quietly behind the emerald curtains is bumping the DCs to level appropriateness. The math in PF2E is so tight that this is ultimately necessary, with the rules as presented. Static DCs get wonky really fast in PF2E. But if you strip out the level mechanic all sorts of problems go away, including:

--monster CRs are suddenly less restrictive and both higher level and lower level foes can be more useful and pragmatic in encounters (PF2E in this "no level" model literally starts to feel like D&D 3.5 again);

--math remains simpler; not a big deal, the math in PF2E is for the most part not complex but I've lost a couple players over the math as it stands, so take that in to consideration;

--proficiency bonuses will suddenly be far more relevant and stand out.

The Gamemastery Guide actually has an optional rule section on backing levels out. It reads to some extent like this was actually something they thought about doing during the playtest design, but then for some reason decided not to. Maybe they thought it would make them harder to distinguish from D&D 5E, or the illusion of advancement offered by level-adds would be superior to just trusting players to be okay with more intermittent proficiency increases.

Now, I could take the optional rules from the Gamemastery Guide and apply them, and I may yet do this, but it is with the burden of having to then either pre-convert all the material to the level-less mechanic, or convert on the fly. It would be a lot of work to make this happen in something like Roll20, but the net result would be, I think, a dramatically better game experience.

3. The Skill System and Skill Feats Need to be Refined/Broadened and Cut Respectively. PF2E did not take this lesson from anywhere else, unfortunately, and the skill system still feels like a design directed by a specific style of play. I am very, very tired of Society being a catch-all for so many skills, and the high level of specificity in the skill mechanics and feats of PF2E create unintended mine traps for niche protection, and a lot of juggling of information on what does and does not work for what purpose that is often counter-intuitive to just making a call. When running PF2E in contrast with either D&D 5E or D&D 3.5 (or hell, PF1E too) it is painfully clear that the rigorous attempt to control skills in PF2E was both a failed effort and one directed by a design team which perceived a problem that was not really a problem at all for so many players to begin with. Bottom line: skill systems for any D&D iteration in today's game environment need to encourage creativity, allow for intuitive rule calls, and be flexible enough to meet story needs. PF2E on the surface acts like a game that wants this, too, but its actual system discourages intuitive utilization.

My fix would be to rewrite the skills to re-include some missing options that will allow for more customization (example: cultural knowledge and linguistics not all rolled up in Society, perception and insight/sense motive become their own skills again, and lore is better and more broadly defined; the rigorous limitations imposed by the current system on what one can do are done away with, as are all skill feats entirely). This would be a start. An optional simpler non-skill based mechanic should exist for those who want fewer skills, too.

4. Fix or clean up the process on identifying magic items and detecting magic. It's a mess, and could benefit from a high level of consolidation. A single section that walks a player and GM through the process coherently from start to finish is much needed. Better yet, provide a basic and advanced version of the process, one for groups that do not want to worry about this and one for those who do.

5. Clean up and organize the crafting rules, and make them more specialized. Clean up the various spots where magic item creation and rune rules are by consolidating it all into one location. No more hunting and pecking to get the whole picture. As with #4 above, include an optional simplified version of the process and an "official" more detailed version to suit different group styles.

6. Let players have more fun. As the game has expanded I think Paizo has gotten this message, and my players pick a lot of stuff from other books which provide more useful abilities than in the core, so I think they are well aware that this was a problem with the initial design. My group regularly describes PF2E as a "game designed by GMs to put uppity players in their place" and they are not wrong. Many class designs seem severely hampered, or have specific synergies hidden behind lots of trap choices which wouldn't be trap choices if the GM side of the equation (monsters, and level limited loot) weren't so highly balanced as to make any poor player playing sub-optimally easy fodder. My current campaign is the very definition of suboptimal....a witch, an alchemist, a swashbuckler and a rogue who collectively somehow manage to survive as long as I give them copious useful damage and protection based allies. Because of the level-based system and the high level of difficulty scaling in monster design it means that my only real safe bet is to throw CR-0 to CR-3 stuff at them as often as possible, and even the rare CR+2 or +3 encounter is probably just a terrible idea (this Saturday had one, which I regretted putting in the game immediately; The group is level 7 and fought a single CR+3 monster, and it was a nightmarish slog in which I added an equivalent CR monster on their side just to help them out). 

Anyway, when players have abilities that make them feel useful or impressive, they like it. But all too often it seems like PF2E fails to offer this olive branch to them. 

Anyway....debating how to approach my group on a change. I know they are having fun with the campaign, but its pretty clear to me this is despite the rules we chose and not because of it. I am likely to switch to D&D 5E again, with lots of gritty rules turned on, or suggest we try something simpler and more relaxing like OSE or OpenQuest3. We shall see.


1 comment:

  1. Try Dungeon Crawl Classics. The magic system is mind blowing and extremely fun. DCC is easy to understand, and flexible enough that you can use Rules Cyclopedia monsters and AD&D 1e/2e monsters (basically OSE and other OSR system's monsters) pretty much as is. I've been trying to figure out how to use Pathfinder 2e monsters with DCC but thus far it's proving too difficult. I love Pathfiner 2e monster manuals which is why I've tried....

    Watch some YouTube videos on DCC and give it a go. Right now it's my favorite system, followed by OSE.