Sunday, September 11, 2022

Pathfinder 2E - On Risk and Mortality in Games (vs. D&D 5th and Cypher System)

 Brief thoughts here....I've looked at the playtest material released for One D&D so far. It doesn't look too bad, although the whole "monsters don't crit" is a deal breaker for me. It feels like a way to offset level 1-2 player deaths but in the process create a bigger problem for challenges later on. I could be wrong, but the D&D math after level 4-5 favors the players pretty consistently, so losing crits removes a fun element for the DM and reduces the threatening value of monsters overall. On the other hand, like many games, D&D is less about "survival of your PC" these days and more about just telling stories and having some occasional conflict for fun, but I think the notion of player character mortality is something that runs counter to the general direction of the game and its audience these days.

I was doing a session zero with the game group on Saturday for Cypher System, another game which essentially is not about character mortality as a serious risk. You can die in Cypher but it takes a mutual level of determination by the GM and utter ineptitude by the player; you have to really, really want the PC dead and the player has to really burn through their resources astoundingly fast to get to the point where death is inevitable. I think its happened or almost happened only twice in the time I've run Cypher System.

That got me back to thinking about Pathfinder 2E. This system, although I have had my ups and downs with it (and have many issues with its approach to skills and overly structured probabilities), is undeniably not like the other two I mentioned: character mortality is possible at any point in a PC's career, and the idea that level-appropriate encounters are laden with mortal risk is part of the game by design. Pathfinder 2E also leans in to letting players make bad choices if they want with their actions during combat, pushing success past the point of likelihood and risking greater failure as a result. As a consequence of this, the one campaign I ran from level 1 to 20 in PF2E demonstrated that the system had managed to find a decent balance at high level which felt consistent with lower levels; the odds of failure remained even late in the game, an intriguing notion. 

By contrast, with D&D 5E there comes a point where the game can prove challenging, sometimes in unexpected ways, such as how gangs of lower CR monsters are usually more effective that a single CR-equivalent or higher monster which can go down quickly if its not a boss with legendary actions. D&D 5E has been pretty consistent in this regard; you can get a sense of challenge out of a session but the potential for real risk is generally not on the cards unless the DM goes out of their way to try for it. 

Likewise, with Cypher System, you don't really build scenarios in Cypher with the idea of player mortality in combat being a likely thing;* you aim for complications, events, encounters and discovery for sure, but it is best (in my experience) to treat Cypher Characters like the protagonists in a book; they have a certain amount of plot immunity for the most part, and it takes a real monumental cluster of unfortunate events to take them out.

But Pathfinder 2E does not have this problem....and while it does have a slightly different issue (that in which especially low level and especially high level encounters relative to the group are too trivial or too lethal to even consider), it does manage to handle that sweet spot of keeping the group on its toes quite nicely....which is something I like, on occasion.

 Which is all a long winded way of saying I need to look at it more closely again. PF2E, much like PF1E, might end up being the bastion for those who find themselves once more dissatisfied with the current or impending edition of the Big Dog. 

One other item of note....the revision to character races in the proposed One D&D playtest shines a light on how the Pathfinder 2E ancestries, while more elaborate in their design requirements, already accomplish a range of flexibility that D&D 5E appears to be trying to mirror. They are obviously toying a bit with some sacred cows such as proscribed ability modifiers, but if you go back far enough D&D in its roots didn't have ability modifiers to begin with, so whatever. But picking an ancestry in PF2E gives you feats and interesting stuff, as well as choices, that don't stop with level 1....its just a better approach to the concept overall.

Post-Script - all said though, a conversation with one of my players does hammer home the big problem with even considering Pathfinder 2E over, say, D&D 5E: the fact that I am not the only one who does not find the player side of the experience fun or rewarding. That, alone, kind of negates any positives I as GM might see with the system; what's the point of a smooth GM-side experience if the player-side of the system doesn't offer an enjoyable of fulfilling experience? 

*Cypher players may take a long time to figure this out, though; it's easy to invoke a sense of risk and mortality, particularly in tiers 1-3, surprisingly, probably because the way a player has to think about running their character in terms of their "risk pools" invokes that sense more easily; but numerically they definitely have the advantage...most of the time. The GM at least has a ton of flexibility in design, so its always possible in Cypher to just design something which cruelly knocks them down to near death if you really want to and the rules fully support it; much harder to do that in D&D 5E, and PF2E can do it but requires a bit of structure and effort to do so. 


  1. I could see low-level monsters and typical brutish humanoids being unable to Crit. Higher level monsters and leader type humanoids would be able to. By the same token, only martially trained characters should be able to Crit (Fighter types).

    If Crits are then conditional, then fumbles should be eliminated (no matter how amusing they are for the DM).

    Finally, there should be an option for a Crit to instead be a knockout. Perhaps a Con save to determine how long it lasts.

    1. I wouldn't mind a system where the player can use inspiration (and they start with one) which can be used to nullify a crit; or maybe a rule where a character can make a save to resist or avoid a crit.

    2. Inspiration is forced role playing. If characters can save vs Crits, why not monsters? I could see thief-type characters having that as a class feature, since thieves are generally thought to be getting by on luck.

    3. It depends on how many unique "player facing" options you want to push in to the game. Right now removing crits turns crits into a "player facing" rule. I like mechanics where the players have to consider using a resource to reduce an effect, so thus my suggestion (and why I like games like Cypher System). I am less concerned that 5E maintain equity with the player and DM mechanics than I am that it provides interesting options for each. Removing crits from monsters is just taking something away from the DM, when instead they could leave that but provide a depletable mechanic for the player to utilize. That would be my thought, anyway.