Dec 06 2010

The Intersection of Pathfinder and 4E

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These days for my fantasy gaming I’m reasonably content with Pathfinder. It’s not “the perfect game,” but it works and irons out some of the kinks from D&D 3.5, so I’m fine with it. Particularly as Hero Lab continues to develop into a smoother, easier-to-use desktop tool, I’m getting back into my “3.5 + E-Tools” happy place.

I will be the first to admit, however, that before their recent abandonment by WotC [1], the 4E desktop tools, especially the monster builder, were mighty nice. Looking back at the scenario I came up with for our 4E playtest, I gotta say that being able to quickly bang out sea devils and harpies that could be used against 1st-level heroes with the click of a button was pretty sweet.

The Pathfinder community has been making strides in that direction, especially with the concept of “simple templates” and emphasis on “reskinning.” For instance, if I wanted to make a 1st level sea devil for PF, I could slap a “negative advanced template” on it once or twice or even just take an orc, replace “Ferocity” with “Blood Frenzy,” and go. The players are never going to see the stat block, so the fact that the weapon entry says “falchion” instead of “trident” doesn’t really matter.

But the big thing is training yourself to think that way. Back in my HERO System days, thinking of the game stats and the “special effects” as separate entities was as natural as air, but there’s just something about having books full of monster stats (and very detailed tables about just what size hit die undead should have as opposed to monstrous humanoids) that makes it easy to get caught up in all that fiddly-to-no-real-good-purpose math.

If anything, that was 4E’s brilliant mental breakthrough: figure out the mechanics for what you want the creature to actually do, and then skin it to suit. What makes a sea devil a sea devil, besides the green skin and flippers? It’s going into a shark-like (or piranha-like) frenzy at the smell of blood, not that they have 2d10 hit dice. So once you’ve got that aspect, all you need to do is tweak the numbers up and down to give your players a good fight. And the Monster Builder software made that very easy, in a way that Hero Lab just doesn’t quite at this time.

In a similar vein, I’ve started taking to putting in all kinds of things that make the stat block work mathematically, and then changing the part the players actually see. For instance, I tried a variety of ideas to bring the minion mechanic into Pathfinder and never really did come to a conclusion that was the quick-and-easy convert I wanted. So what I started doing instead was using low-CR monsters and giving them cheesy equipment — Ogre with a +3 greatclub, baby! — so that they’d actually have a chance to hit the AC 30+ monster PCs I’ve got. But then when the ogre goes down, what actually “drops” is the regular gear you’d expect to see on an ogre.

Does this hurt the game? I’d say no. Remember that the rules are there to facilitate having a good time, not as an end to themselves. Tearing through an army of ogres that are still at least a little dangerous is fun; tearing through an army of ogres that can’t possibly hit back is just a math exercise. But at the end of the day, being able to loot two dozen +3 greatclubs would neither make a lick of sense, nor be good for the long-term gameplay due to the out-of-whack treasure reward.

What I’d really like in the game “out of the box” would be to be able to control every stat a critter has, independent of every other stat. Pathfinder, being based on 3.x, has all kinds of intricate rules for building critters based on their type (“Aberrations” have good Will saves and mediocre hit dice, while “Constructs” have good hit dice and great BAB, but rotten saving throws, etc.). I can see why this was done, but I don’t actually think it adds enough to the game to be worth the hoops it makes you jump through. And of course, as the GM, if I want a construct to have an awesome Will save, there’s no reason I can’t say “Sim salabim, it is done!” But I do think that the 4E model, in which a critter’s stats are based on whether it’s going to be a melee bruiser or a stealthy sneaker, and then you give it “signature” abilities to establish its theme, is a better model overall.

I am working on a “Quickie Monster Generator” program that will do some of these things that I’m wishing for, largely as an exercise to keep up my programming chops as much as anything. But I hope to be able to release it as a freebie utility for other Pathfinder GMs in time.

-The Gneech

[1] This is not strictly accurate … WotC is redoing them as an online-only subscription service. But as I am no longer subscribed and doubt that I’m likely to subscribe again for the foreseeable, the net result is the same.

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