Wednesday, April 10, 2013

(Obvious) thoughts on high-level Pathfinder

I’d like to share my experience with higher-level campaigns. I started GMing at 1994 and the main appeal of RPGs for me were the idea of campaigns – years long games with elaborate tales, changing and evolving PCs etc. I remember that, at the time, I managed a 3-4 years AD&D 2nd campaign and a 2 years Vampire the Masquerade game. None were properly a campaign in that neither had a main goal, story or purpose – they’re just a bunch of wacky adventures around the same group of PCs (yes, even the Vampire one… please note that I was teen GM). The last year of my AD&D 2nd game started to resemble a campaign in the modern sense, with an overall arch and a final goal – ironically, exactly at this time D&D 3rd came out and I canceled the game (one of my deepest regrets). My original AD&D group never migrated to the “d20 era” and I had to start from scratch.

My first D&D 3rd campaign was in Greyhawk. I started it in 2001 with the Sunless Citadel and the Forge of Fury, followed by Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil. The funny thing was that, at the time, I was just following the hype – I didn’t really liked “dungeon crawl” as a genre. However, the games were definitely fun. When the party reached 10th level things started to get out of hand for me – too many magic items, complicated monsters, various crazy prestige class abilities and, above all, lots of overpowered spellcasters.

High-level combat in 3rd Edition was dominated by “absolute” effects: mainly save-vs-die spells, but also lots of attacks that completely ignored AC or drained lethal huge amounts of levels (or ability scores) without save; and I won’t even mention the absurd DCs for spells and effects (it was relatively easy to have spells DCs of 26-30). The main culprits were the magic and psionic systems. Nonspellcasters didn’t have a chance, although they’re quiet resilient when in pure melee combat (except rogues). In fact, a combat between high-level noncasters could drag for quite a few rounds. Haste and buffs dominated the battlefield. Combats were in general mutually destructive, with initiative determining who was standing after a few rounds (interestingly how the same thing happened before, in my AD&D 2nd games that used the Player’s Options books).

The Greyhawk campaign lasted 2-3 years – my longest d20 game so far. After that I most of the time only run Legend of the Five Rings; besides short games (3-4 sessions) like Lord of the Rings (CODA System), Exalted and Call of Cthulhu. I did tried coming back to d20, but all my attempts were short-lived (Black Company, Arcana Evolved etc.).

I came into Pathfinder while running my Chronicles of the 7th Moon campaign (we started at D&D 3.5 and converted to Pathfinder approximately at 5th level). This became my second longest d20 campaign, with 4 years of intense gaming. Because we’re using a setting for which I co-authored, I felt free to indulge myself with house rules and different types of adventures. The campaign was a success among my players and reached 12th level. At this time, each character had so much stuff going on his sheet, that I stopped level progression (more info here). Actually, I don’t think this campaign is a good example of how Pathfinder works – I changed too much stuff (some of my house rules can be found here). Characters had extra Hit Points and were considerable stronger than their respective level (their power level was probably be closer to 15th level).

So, finally, after a 1 year hiatus, I started the Curse of the Crimson Throne (or CotCT) campaign that I’m still running once every 20-30 days. It’s based on the 2nd Adventure Path made by Paizo and by far my favorite one (though originally written for D&D 3.5). I’m running CotC keeping to the Pathfinder Core Rulebook as faithful as possible. I’m allowing almost anything from the Advanced Player’s Guide, Ultimate Combat and Ultimate Magic. I’m also using Hero Points from the Advanced Player’s Guide, mainly as a substitute for raised dead and resurrection magic in general (removed as requested by my players).

So, how does Pathfinder runs?

First thing I noted: the core classes are wonderful and so robust that most players don’t even think about prestige classes anymore. This leaves the game more “clean” or “iconic”. The nonspellcaster classes gained a lot of punch. Spellcaster still rule the day, especially when you have few encounter between rests. In dungeon crawls (or adventures with a continuous sequence of encounters), nonspellcasters become an essential part of the group, keeping spellcasters alive. The spells’ DCs are also more controllable, especially given the lack of feat and prestige classes to boost them (this was already a trend by D&D 3.5). Spells are used to “soft” your enemies, so that Fighters and other nonspellcasters can zoom it to finish them. There is also practically no “absolute” spell anymore (another design choice that started with D&D 3.5, but which Pathfinder improved).

Now the part that surprised me: damage escalation for noncasters. When the party reached 9th level I begin to note that classes like Fighter and Barbarian kept increasing their damage per round ratings – dramatically. Usually, at this point in D&D, you damage only gets higher through magic items. However, in Pathfinder, the various class features keep increasing through middle and high-levels. By the 12th level, the Fighter and Barbarian are dealing amazing amounts of damage each round (easily more than the casters after an entire encounter). Mixed classes, like the Magus, can go “nova” and skyrocket damages per strike ratings.

The net result is that most of my battles are fast, almost as fast as those of the first levels. Oddly, I find this very good. The game runs less chaotically than D&D 3rd/3.5. However, the high numbers are starting to scare me. And, on the GM side of the screen, creating monsters and challenges for high-level play still require too much work and spare time for my liking. Given my absolute lack of the later, I'm in the habit of just reskinning most creatures and using pieces of other Adventure Paths and adventures.

Features like the one above only strength my desire of “stopping” D&D 3rd/Pathfinder around level 10th and making 11+ campaigns as the “epic levels”. In fact, I’m only keeping CotCT rules as written because Paizo did already most of the heavy stuff for me (and also because we’re all having tons of fun).

I’ll try to elaborate on some of my crazier alternatives for “advancement” in the next post.