new thoughts on a style of Pathfinder play

edited April 2015 in Play Advice
I'm currently playing through the Fires of Creation module (part of the Iron Gods path). While adjusting to a style I haven't played in many years, my game design brain has been engaged, and a new thought on how the whole thing works has just cohered for me:

1) Even when the GM has no affinity for railroading, a module is not a sandbox. There are only so many fun things to do, and most of them are more or less laid out in a path that must be traveled in a certain broad-strokes order (e.g. you can traverse the mini-dungeon via any route you want, but you have to defeat the mini-dungeon before you can enter the iron tunnels).

2) Given that the overall shape of the fictional journey is not in question, the uncertainty of play lies in how it will be traversed. Important questions to be answered in play include:
- Is the fictional journey cool? Do we dig the module's aesthetics (and plot, if there is one)?
- What other stuff, tangential to the core journey, will happen along the way? Will we grow to love or hate any of the player characters, or any of the people or places they interact with?
- Will the initial set of player characters all survive to see through to journey's end?
- Will the journey unfold quickly and directly, or haltingly, with much pausing and back-tracking to recuperate, restock, etc.?
- Will we complete the full adventure, or come to a good stopping point before that (such as a TPK)?

3) Combat is the primary randomizer of the journey's shape. All of the questions above depend in part on how injured the characters get (or are deemed likely to get) at various points in the journey. There are several possible ways to approach Pathfinder combat in this context:
- Use no strategy at all, roll the dice, and see what happens.
- Try to perfect your strategy, retaining maximum hit points and other resources.
- Combine any levels of the above, with an "onward quickly or bust!" mindset.
- Combine any levels of the above, with a "keep these characters alive, however many takes it requires!" mindset.

4) For whatever your combat goals may be, knowing the rules well and building an effective character will increase your ability to achieve them. If you don't have combat goals, or find them thwarted by your group, then mastering the rules or making a slick build yields little return in fights.

5) Depending on the roles of combat and soaking in the scenery for a given group, the "other stuff that happens along the way" can become the primary forum for meaningful player contribution. Examples:
- Doing socially savvy things that get you fame and/or adoration.
- Doing socially inappropriate things that are hilarious.
- Forming strong attachments to weird or absurd objects, foods, pastimes, etc.
- Creating and performing character-defining shticks.
- Relating everything that happens to your character concept. ("I consecrate this battle to my deity!")
- Looking badass in combat. (Even absent strategic combat objectives, a good build can help you pull this off.)

6) If the above 5 points accurately describe play, then I think anyone who's confused about "what I am there to do" can look at their group through this lens and possibly find a path toward an answer. Similarly, if a group is interesting in streamlining module play, this sort of understanding might help them pick what to trim and what to emphasize.

For example, my current group is pretty low on scenery-soaking, moderate on "other stuff" tangents, moderate on the combat goal of avoiding permanent character deaths, and low on other combat goals. Accordingly, we appreciate it when the GM fast-forwards through foregone conclusions in combat rather than making us do every roll, and we maintain a balance of quick forward progress with frequent (but short-lived) digressions.

If I were hacking the module for this group, I'd probably use more weak but deadly opponents (to get us to the "move on or play safe?" decisions with less "roll to hit, roll to hit, roll to hit" grinding) and replace a few combats with social obstacles (so that doing funny or shticky character things isn't relegated to recuperation time).

As is, personally, I'm enjoying combats more now that I know that "keep moving forward, don't die" is the goal, but that no one cares about pursuing it optimally, so I can feel free to do stuff that's merely entertaining as long as it doesn't dramatically change our odds of having to go back to town and heal.

I imagine all this will seem obvious to some, and irrelevant to others who are used to doing things in one particular way, but I think it's interesting in the context of a game that attracts a diverse audience and attempts (or at least allows itself) to be different things for different people. I've seen plenty of writing on the "how does a new group in a D&D game cohere?" front, but I've never stumbled upon anything exactly like this schema that just occurred to me, so I figured I'd chime in and see what y'all think.

Comments

  • edited April 2015
    This sounds like a very good description of a lot of trad RPG play I've seen. I also agree with your suggested tweaks (and they are probably a big reason a lot of these groups have gravitated to OSR play, since that emphasizes both aspects).

    In fact, I would venture to guess that, for a lot of roleplaying groups, what you describe IS roleplaying gaming, and anything else seems weird (if they ever encounter it).

    How often does the group lose combats, lose characters, suffer defeat, etc?

    Do any of the players (or GM) try to push the game in other directions? What happens when they do?

    Is trying to be overly effective cheered on or frowned upon?

    (I can also see why some groups playing this way gradually gravitate towards diceless gaming - the dice rolling because tedious after a while for them - or more hardcore combat gaming, like D&D4E.)
  • For me, when designing this kind of adventure, I try to make the stuff you do now matter to the stuff that happens later, even if it's a linear plot structure.

    Does making friends with anyone in town garner you information (or supplies) that will help you overcome challenges in the dungeon?

    How does reputation matter, in or out of the dungeon? Looking like a bad-ass in combat can feed into reputation.

    Can a character gain Inspiration (in the 5e sense, or some other boon in Pathfinder) because of a special bond with an NPC or place or object?

    More directly, if the party overcomes an early encounter quickly, does that affect the difficulty of later encounters? For example, a standard encounter but there's a cache of firebombs behind the enemy -- can the party prevent the destruction of those items and still win the battle? Maybe there's an easy path to winning an early encounter, but its price is that a final encounter is much more difficult. Or typically, success earlier feeds more success later. Telegraph these options to players so they can make strategic choices.
  • It feels like there is much to it. I don't have any more to say except that your analyze seems accurate.
  • Another approach to make this kind of play feel less linear is to adopt more of a sandbox type of game. This means having multiple modules and multiple adventure hooks in play at any given time.

    This changes to implied "feel" behind running through the dungeon very dramatically - more than you would think, if you've never tried it. It becomes a viable choice to grab that cache of firebombs and run out of the dungeon so that you can sell them to the revolutionaries outside the capital, who, in return, can book you passage to the Isles of the Dead, because there's an item there you need... and so on.
  • edited April 2015
    How often does the group lose combats, lose characters, suffer defeat, etc?

    Do any of the players (or GM) try to push the game in other directions? What happens when they do?

    Is trying to be overly effective cheered on or frowned upon?
    1) We have never failed to kill an opponent in combat. We have frequently (4 of our first 8 encounters?) won a fight with 1-2 characters unconscious, and then returned to town for healing rather than continuing in the dungeon. One room re-spawned its gremlins every time we left, so we had to change tactics (and accept some GM generosity) to overcome it and keep moving. No character has yet failed a "stabilize" check when knocked unconscious, so no deaths.

    2) The GM tries to push us forward to the next location, and is about 90% successful in interrupting whatever character acting or comical banter was going on. If we're entertaining enough, he doesn't interrupt.

    I try to take a tactical or at least colorful approach into fights when we know what we're facing. One player enjoys this. Another player and the GM enjoy it only for about as long as it takes to either come up with one brilliant idea or fail to do so. When they lose interest in tactics, I generally acquiesce to charging in, but sometimes I start a comedic aside rolling to buy myself a little more time to think. On the occasions when my plans give the less-interested player opportunities to run amok with his character, then he happily jumps on board.

    3) Killing things as quickly as possible is always nice, and the optimized combat badass is much appreciated. Approaching fights strategically is only appreciated if (a) it's quick, (b) we have very strong reasons to believe it's necessary, or (c) it's colorful and fun in its own right.

    As for moving toward a sandbox, the GM has zero interest in that, and I doubt the other players are eager to take on responsibility for choosing the characters' path. Keepin' it simple and riding the rails has its appeal.
    For me, when designing this kind of adventure, I try to make the stuff you do now matter to the stuff that happens later, even if it's a linear plot structure.
    That's generally my inclination as well when I GM, and I generally want that when I play, but for this group, I wonder... I think the fact that our shenanigans in town are not usually consequential may contribute to a feeling of freedom. Players can goof off, indulging their creative whims and character visions without having to exercise any critical oversight. "Now the orc thinks he can play the flute" is really its own reward.

    A nuanced reputation beyond "these adventurers are trying to save our village so we villagers should help them" might not actually be welcome. I don't know.

    In the abstract, I don't see any reason why the way we dealt with combats couldn't influence future combats... but all of our combats have been with dumb monsters (or, in one case, with sentients who behaved like dumb monsters).

    No, allies and connections have not been useful beyond GM handwaving to keep things moving ("sure, the villagers healed you up to full HP, let's go"). Again, this differs from my default preference but may serve to keep the group adventuring instead of mining towns for advantage... perhaps.
    More directly, if the party overcomes an early encounter quickly, does that affect the difficulty of later encounters? For example, a standard encounter but there's a cache of firebombs behind the enemy -- can the party prevent the destruction of those items and still win the battle? Maybe there's an easy path to winning an early encounter, but its price is that a final encounter is much more difficult. Or typically, success earlier feeds more success later. Telegraph these options to players so they can make strategic choices.
    This also sounds great to me. We must dungeoneer together sometime. Sorry I haven't sent you my Delve one-shot stuff yet; I'll get on that. As for my PF group, though, I'm not sure if they want stakes that deserve serious strategic thought. Grinding through meaningless fights can be boring, but it can also be relaxing. I don't think anyone here wants to work too hard. Creating a causal chain between easy fights, though -- relating some colorful particulars to earlier player choices/achievements, without adjusting challenge overmuch -- would probably be a worthy addition.
  • Yeah, in Pathfinder it's pretty hard to kill someone outright - also when you do the consequences to death are minor past a certain level.

    This sounds like a lot of D&D3 play to me, yep. :)
  • I think you're right overall, and particularly right to really ask yourself, ok, what is the goal here? What's frustrating in general about trad gaming is the sense that nothing is at stake, not even socially: I could be outgoing, effusive, and hilarious as my character, or be a lump of mud at the table, and either way I'd still be invited back, because of Geek Social Fallacies and whatnot.

    Advanced Wizards and Wizards, which is at this point in its wrap-up stage (one session to go! inconvenient premature birth IRL interfering with scheduling!) and which started as a Pathfinder-based game, has sometimes had this problem. The PCs have faced a few meaningful setbacks, though—enough that they know I won't just handwave to let them succeed, even if the vast, vast majority of encounters and adventures have been successful.
  • This is right on the money based on my experience running and playing in PF adventure path campaigns. I almost feel like some version of this should be included right in the text of this kind of module, for the sake of clarity.
  • I usually announce in my D&D games what my character's goal is.

    In the Forgotten Realms: it's to get famous and rich and bang lots of hot guys/girls (depending on preference)

    In Greyhawk: it's to get so rich that it's okay that I deserted from the army.

    In Dragonlance: it's because I owe this minotaur named Smiling Jimmy a whole LOT of money and if anyone asks if you've seen me, you just say you haven't, okay?

    Even if it never comes up it always helps.
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