Secret Writings of the Ash Ock

Aequam memento rebus in arduis servare mentem

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Our Pathfinder game mostly wrapped up yesterday, with us taking down the big bad. We'll have a final session at some point to decide what happens to each of our characters, but the game part of it is basically done.

I enjoyed Legacy of Fire, warts and all. I really would love to do more with an Arabian Nights-style setting. It worked at its best when Lee took the story/modules and made them his own. It worked at its least when we were mostly slogging through dungeon rooms or having accounting sessions. (A classic from session 1 or 2 was my comment of "In the name of Allah, the merciful, the compassionate, today I will tell you a tale of the day we bought 3 pieces of string, some chalk, two candles, iron rations, ...")

Mostly, I'll wrap up with my quick thought on Pathfinder. I was mostly "Done" with 3.5 games eight or so years ago; having run two big campaigns and having played in many more, I'd pretty much seen or done just about anything interesting with the system mechanically. And its warts had become pretty obvious to me. Pathfinder doesn't really fix or solve anything there. It mostly layers another set of things on top of 3.5, with some minor band aid fixes along the way. Some of that is audience; Pathfinder was really a way to grab all the 3.5 grognards from Hasbro when 4e changed too many things for their tastes.

My list is a lot longer than this, but here are some of the things that get frustrating over time:

* Classes are more mechanically dense. Pathfinder didn't simplify much; it added new powers and new concepts of the characters. It definitely delivers on crunch for crunchy players who like crunchy crunch. I can appreciate that, but I want story also.

* The buffing game. Oh god, the buffing game. Everything is about filling the paper doll of mechanical boosts and then dropping a round or two of spells on top of it. It slows down play, it means that everything should ideally be an ambush, it means calculating and recalculating play stats, and it just doesn't feel 'fun' to me.

* High level fights are super fast. I would say that in the last 5-10 fights of the game, very few combats went more than 2 rounds. The big bad died in less than 3 full rounds; we did something like 500 points of damage to him in that time. Arguably, if he'd ever gotten a full attack action on anyone, they would be dead dead dead, for the same reason.

* Action economy is everything. If you have a way to get more actions, you win. The most effective character at dealing out damage at our table was a druid with companion. With buffs, her and her pet were easily doing 3x the damage of the rest of the party combined. Mostly that's just extra attacks and extra actions being a huge force multiplier on damage boosts. (Power attack + the add-ons, two-handed weapons, being able to stay size huge for the whole adventure).

On the other side of this, the big bad was only getting a normal set of actions per round, and he had no backup. Which meant, at the end of the day, that we took him down with only one person taking any damage. (She had more reach than him.) He needed friends, more actions, reactive effects, global room effects.

* High level spell casting is full of "traps". Oh, there are definitely some really powerful fight-ending spells. I pulled one out on the fight before the big bad, for example. But a large number of the spells sound flavorful but in practice don't scale particularly well or have a weakness that makes them not very useful in practice. Some of them just exist to take the cap off of some higher level spell. It really comes back around to early comments on buffing and fast fights. If I'm lucky to get one or two spells off, every one of them has to be something effective. When fights are going to last 2 rounds, the best thing I can do is cast haste.

* I've ranted about wizards specifically before, but they really ramped up the power level of other classes but left a lot of the limitations of wizards intact. Wizards are in the awkward situation of being the class that needs both TIME and CASH to get class abilities. I still feel the only reason I survived the campaign was generosity from Lee -- I couldn't have ever generated enough defenses to matter otherwise or if I did, that's all I'd be doing. After the half-way point in the game, there was never a session where I was seriously threatened, and very few fights where I took any damage at all. One or two fights where we got hit by an AOE spell effect, but that's about it. OTOH, if he'd put a fire giant or just about anything into melee with me, I'd have been tissue paper.

* There aren't enough reactive effects. For the most part in a fight, I could tune out when it was not my turn. Oh, sometimes I'd be researching my next spell to cast but it wasn't like I had to pay attention to the wall of numbers going by otherwise.

* Wizards (and maybe other casters) still really have no great default action to do when they don't want to cast a spell. Meaning, if I can't land a fireball on multiple monsters or a haste on the party, it drops pretty quickly to magic missile or single-digit staff attacks. In a world where at-will attacks for other PCs are averaging 60-100 per round (more with crits), that's kinda weak. Put another way, casters need to burn resources to be effective but can't do that all of the time.

I'll touch on this again in the next item, but I would love to see skills (like knowledge skills) have more mechanical weight at the table. For the most part in our PF game, the primary use we got out of them was to identify monster's weaknesses. Which is not to say that this was a bad thing, but it was very passive.

* Pathfinder is so mechanically dense that story gets lost under the weight. And, related: many of the character development options - feats and the like - lack story color. Especially for spell casters, where metamagic is really quite dull. I would love to see more feats or skill options that let my wizard be more wizardly. To have story tropes with just enough mechanical weight that they can play out well at the table.

That's probably the big ticket items for me. And I certainly admit that coming to pathfinder after multiple years of 4e certainly colors my experiences. I don't always agree with the way they 'fixed' things in 4e, but I do feel they were trying to solve some of the right problems.
- At will powers that don't suck.
- Fewer buff spells
- Better action economy overall, including reactive powers
- Better action economy for solo villains
- Less number inflation (this one is arguable; the number inflation wasn't there quite so much at the start, but definitely there within the first year).

(I could - and have - ranted about all the things 4e broke while trying to solve these problems, mind you).

This is one of the reasons I want to try 5e some more; it feels like they tried to solve some of the same problems but with cleaner (or at least simpler) solutions than either 3.x or 4.x.

If I had to spell out a "vision" for what I'd like to see, it would be roughly:
* At-will powers from non-casting characters are effective, but not overpowering.
* At-will actions from caster types are less effective.
* Casters have fewer resources to draw on (spells memorized), but those effects are more effective on average.
* Everyone has at least some "give me the spotlight for a minute" effects.
* Everyone is not cookie cutter.
* More story flavor in skill and power usage.

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