Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Pathfinder and Character Design

We played a small one-off adventure with Pathfinder last weekend, and we used Hero Lab to generate a quick party of 13th level adventurers. It felt good, the system ran well, and what struck us the most about the experience was how well building characters worked and the wide variety of options you have in the system (when you have most of the books plus third-party materials).

The number one rule was - do not min max for one ability or raw damage. We said, have fun and design characters with a path through life and a story to go along with that, maybe starting out a fighter, then dipping into bard, whatever. Intentionally design characters who are not optimized but feel like they are real, with maybe not the best choices in life but we will see how this all comes out in the adventure.

It worked beautifully. One of the best tools about Pathfinder, especially compared to other fantasy systems, is how tight and functional the CR system is for building encounters. Most of the time (in my experience), it creates an encounter that works and plays well, and it allows me to adjust difficulty for a party of non-optimized characters like the ones we played with and everything worked fine. The challenge level was perfect, fights were exciting, and once we threw out the concept of playing for "max damage" we all relaxed a little and had a lot of fun.

Another thing about playing with non-optimized characters was the party as a whole was more capable with skills and different abilities. We had one player take four levels of the NPC class "expert" and say his character started out a blacksmith for half his life and then started adventuring later. It worked, the skills worked out in his favor, and he had a good time. Yes, a lot of modules for 13th level heroes are optimized for average to perfect characters, but the CR system let me adjust things on the fly and modify encounters so our strange and quirky band of kit-bashed heroes could shine and save the day.

With one look at his sheet I could say, "Your character may be level 13, but he is really closer to level 9 in power, but don't worry because you have a lot of cool skills and other abilities that will come in handy. I will adjust the module accordingly."

If I was wrong and the encounter was too easy or hard, no problem, I adjust the next encounter up or down a little and we keep playing. Once you understand and can work the CR system on the fly it is a powerful tool not only for balance, but also for adjusting encounters for remaining playing time. If we are running low on time I may want to lighten up the last few encounters to speed things up and get to where I want to leave off, that sort of thing.

Everyone had a useful skill for many of the situations, which shifted the play from more combat oriented goals to role-playing ones, which was fun. When players have a deeper and better equipped toolbox of skills and abilities they tend to get very creative when solving problems. We saw a lot more trickery, role-playing, social interaction, and even crafting during play than we normally do raw combats and it was refreshing.

Another benefit about owning a lot of the third-party books and modules for Hero Lab are the flexibility it gives you in designing characters. Some of the base choices for many of the classes leave a lot to be desired, and stick to the same old-spells and powers we have grown accustomed to. With a lot of third-party content, you can design a paladin who feels like they walked straight out of World of Warcraft or any other MMO, and a player can have that instant familiarity and excitement that they will have their smite evil spells, consecrate-like abilities, and blessings ready to go. They may not be able to use them every fight and have to save them for critical moments, but that level of customization and creativity in character design is there and it really was a crowd pleaser for our group.

Overall, a cool experience and one I wanted to share.

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