Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Simplifying Pathfinder

With the Pathfinder Beginner Box finally out I guess the “let’s do a full Pathfinder Basic Game” topic is hot on most messageboards and forums. Well, let me try to juggle some ideas on the topic of a “Pathfinder Basic” game.

The point here is to remain enough faithful to the Core Rulebook so that we can keep using Paizo’s material. I’m talking about the rules, especially monster and items. Otherwise, it’s easier to just buy (or pick a free version) of one of the various retro-clones out there.

Here is what I’d do (and I must emphasize that this is just my point of view) to “simplify” Pathfinder. Doing most of the options below would surely change the face of the game and probably create a split among Paizo’s costumers (inarguably the foremost reason for not doing such thing). But that’s the beauty of RPGs and Internet… you can do practically anything you want with them without worrying with corporate constraints (unless those companies are Wizards of the Coast or Kevin Siembieda’s). 

Some suggestions:

Reduce all Ability Score bonuses by 1. Why? This way a Str of 15 would only grant a +1 bonus to attack and damage. Less overall math. What’s the difference between, let’s say, Dex 10 and Dex 13? Dex 13 lets you buy feats like Dodge – a nice distinction in my mind.

Remove/change skills. Why? For me skills still are one of most “cumbersome” aspects of Pathfinder and, as a proof of it, I point out to the fact that skills are usually the hardest step of character creation for new players (or for veterans just desiring to make a quick for a one-night adventure). Suggestions: the easiest way is just to remove skills and use some equivalent class- and level-based mechanic (like SIEGE rules system from Castles & Crusades, which I sort of hacked for my Pathfinder Lite). If you simply remove them, classes like the Rogue lose too much of their appeal. Another option is adapting the game back to the Alpha version; or just reducing the number of Skills (like in the Beginner Box). Maybe you could steal something from D&D 4th: Acrobatics (Dex-based physical stuff), Arcana, Athletics (Str-based physical stuff), Bluff, Diplomacy, Dungeoneering, Endurance (Con-based physical stuff), Heal, History, Insight, Intimidate, Nature, Perception, Religion, Stealth, Streetwise and Thievery.

Remove Alignments and most Divination Spells. Why? Alignments could be easily replaced by specific ethos and codes of conduct for character classes like the paladin, the cleric and the druid. This also removes a good number of (in my mind) useless damage-dealing spells that also act as sneaky “secondary divinations”. I already stated why I believe that most divination spells should go away – they absence would force the players to work harder (and interact more), besides helping with the creation of plots.

Remove attacks of opportunity. Why? I don’t know. Really. After understanding them back at D&D 3.0 I find AoO to be a great rule, but I must admit that most of my players still don’t get them and just trust in my rulings while I’m gamemastering. However, removing AoO would also remove a good portion of grid-based mechanics, which I find good. I would rule that retreating without a full-round action still gives your enemies a free melee attack. The Pathfinder Beginner Box seems to be good manual for this type of change.

Remove combat maneuvers. Why? Even though combat maneuvers are easier to understand in Pathfinder than in previous editions, they do create more stats and still require the occasional book-checking. My suggestion? Use attack rolls with special modifiers, contested Ability Score checks or skill checks – or even simply character level checks (modified maybe by one or two Ability Score modifiers). Most of these things can be done on the spot, to better adjudicate each situation. The tools are already there. Most importantly – trust your DM.

Remove most (or 90%) of buff spells, particularly those famous spells of 2nd level. Why? Once more, you get less math, and also a smoother and faster game (especially at high levels).

Limit the number of non-instantaneous beneficial spells that a character can have cast on him. I suggest one spell for every 5 character levels. Why? Same reasons of above. Less math, less bookkeeping. Yeah, it’s radical.

Remove Animal Companions, Special Mounts, Cohorts and Followers. Why? Because they’re require too much bookkeeping for a too small benefit (besides slowing the game in combat). That’s the simplest solution and the Core Rulebook already give good alternatives for the practically all the traditional candidates (paladin, druid and ranger classes). If you must use them, I suggest simplifying them with a unified table of stats for 20 levels. The Animal Companion table is already a very good start in this regard – I’d just remove some extra fat (each animal still has too much information). Maybe we could create an Animal Companion table, a Cohort table (or maybe two – a melee and a spellcaster-based Cohort) and a Follower basic list (although I still believe that some kind of abstract mechanic would work better for Followers).

Finally, monsters have to be simplified. Why? Because this is perhaps the main problem with Pathfinder (and its 3rd-based predecessors: NPC and Monster management). I heard that the Pathfinder Beginner Box has already showed some progression in this field. I’ll try to do further experiments with the Pathfinder Bestiary’s table (my first attempt is here, and it’s a little messy, especially the English).


  1. I have to say, I strongly disagree on many of these points. Not only do many of them seems drastic to me, but I'm not sure how many would actually have a strong effect on gameplay.

    Removing skills for example. Not only would this break Pathfinder's compatibility with 3.5, but how much does it *really* simplify things? You get a few points, you toss them into what you want to be good at. In my mind it's really the simplest kind of leveling improvement. If it needs to be simplified, have characters select a number of skills at level 1 equal to the number of skills they'll get each level. Then just have those skills automatically improve by 1 each level. No need for figuring out where to put your points.

    If you really want to simplify character progression, it's feats which are the big culprit.

  2. Hi LS,

    I’m aware that most points above are drastic and that the final game would be something different from “Advanced” Pathfinder. My hope was, at least, to keep using the Bestiary and things like spells.

    Cutting off skills but not feats was mainly due to my personal gaming experience with D&D3rd/Pathfinder. Novice players find skills boring and unnecessary, and while I can understand that the selection of feats can also be a burden for then, it is much easier for me as Gamemaster to simply pick a feat and give it to a player as another class feature (in fact I did exactly that with Pathfinder Lite). With skills that approach is harder, besides the fact that few beginners grasp the importance of most non-obvious physical skills (actually, by running games like OD&D or retroclones I noted that skills tend to restrict player-behavior, while feats are seen just as “cool powers” – with some exceptions, of course).

    Anyway, the post is just my humble point of view in the subject. It’s not “what I think a Basic Pathfinder should be”; and I really would like to know what other people would do. My opinion about an “official” Pathfinder Basic remains the same for now – Paizo is doing write with the Beginner Box and should not split their fan base with another rule system.

  3. I think there's a strong argument to be made for removing skills. Another blog I read actually made a very compelling argument for that this morning (http://hackslashmaster.blogspot.com/2011/11/on-skills-in-games-surprising-insight.html) But my experience has been pretty different. Just a few months ago I had an entire table of new players (3) and they all had their skills filled in quickly without much hassle on my part. For all three players it took maybe 3 or 4 minutes.

    Feats, though, required passing around my copy of the PHB, and each player reading through a brief description of feats which they didn't understand. And given that only one person could do this at a time (which I assume would be the same for most "basic" games) I had to make a choice between helping the player who was working on their feats, or helping the other two players work on other parts of their character sheet.

    I fully, 100% agree that we need a better system in place. I really like the work you've done with the Pathfinder Lite classes. And, on my own blog, I've discussed the possibility of a theoretical system where players have the option of quickly generating a character, or doing an in-depth character build, without either one being necessarily more powerful.

    Regardless of how it's accomplished though, simplifying character building is an essential step in the future development of tabletop RPGs. As an industry and as enthusiasts, we need to fix the problem forcing a complicated task on new players before we allow them to play the game.