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"Goodbye, Jean-Luc, I'm gonna miss you. You had such potential. But then again, all good things must come to an end."
- Q, Star Trek: TNG

Game Day: The Return

by Ken Newquist / May 6, 2011

It’s Game Day, and for the first time in years I’m running Dungeons & Dragons. Well, technically I’m running Pathfinder, but in all the ways that matter it’s the thematic and mechanical successor to the flavor of D&D my group liked best. 

This session is a long time coming. I’ll save the story of the road back for another post; the short version is that my group experienced a catastrophic burnout brought about by 8+ years playing D&D 3.x and the subsequent Edition Wars. For the last three years, Star Wars: Saga Edition has been a welcome refuge, providing us with a much-needed change of genre (wizards with laser swords notwithstanding).

Part of what drove us away from D&D 3.x in the first place was the “x” in 3.x; the splintering of the 3.0 and 3.5 rule set gave rise to all manner of confusion as we constantly stumbled over changes large and small.  More than one disagreement at the table was inspired by disagreements over spells that had morphed and then morphed again between microeditions (and then morphed again when Spell Compendium was released). It was this sort of thing that led us to abandon D&D 2nd Edition for 3E in the first place.

Time heals all wounds. It also makes us forgetful, and our annual Gygax Day D&D adventures have shown that we really don’t remember the old rules any more. The time is ripe for us to hit a new edition, and that edition is Pathfinder

We’re not giving up our Star Wars game any time soon – the group’s still enjoying the Mandalorian Wars campaign and there’s a lot of story left to tell. But one of our key players in the current adventure couldn’t make it tonight, so I decided to postpone the session and run a one-shot of Pathfinder as a playtest instead.

My goal is to run Pathfinder as though I’d never played it before. To that end using Paizo’s introductory adventure The Crypt of the Everflame. The module was designed to showcase changes between Pathfinder and the earlier D&D 3.x branches, providing call outs for new rules for skills, combat maneuvers, undead, etc.  Even better, it was written for 1st  level characters and is set in Paizo’s campaign of Golarion. It’s a fresh start – new characters, new world, new rules – and exactly the sort of thing the Blackrazors need to return to fantasy.

Whenever we hit a major rules component – like say, a little combat maneuver known as “grappling” – I plan on flipping my Pathfinder core rulebook to the appropriate page, quickly reading through the rule, and then getting back to the fight. I’m going to encourage my players to do the same as they use feats, skills and spells – I don’t want anyone to assume they know the rules, because frankly that’s what got us into trouble with D&D 3.0 vs. 3.5.  Besides, we really don’t know these rules now.

I’m viewing this one shot as a playtest – a chance to beat up on Pathfinder and see how it performs at low levels. I want to see if combat maneuvers really help speed up the game, and if Pathfinder’s myriad conditions are as annoying to track as their D&D equivalents. I want to see if the rules creak under the collective weight of a decade’s worth of development, or if Paizo’s managed to find a new sweet spot.

Will Pathfinder become our new game once the Mandalorian Wars have run their course? Maybe. For my money I’d be just as happy – ok, happier – running Savage Worlds with the Fantasy Companion rules or Dragon Age, but there’s a strong Pathfinder contingent among the Blackrazors. If any game is likely to garner a consensus as a successor to Star Wars, it’s Pathfinder. 

Playtest Results

The Pathfinder playtest went pretty well. Although we're playing through a dungeoncrawl (not our favorite adventure format), The Crypt of the Everflame is a good scenario with a fun (and different) hook. The heroes play newly-forged adventurers on a coming-of-age quest for their town.  It starts off like Stand By Me, but quickly takes a darker turn when they finally arrive at the Crypt.

We were able to work in a fair amount of role-playing into our encounters, as people really got into their roles as newbie heroes. We spent far more time than usual looking up rules, but that was part of the plan. Here are a few things that tripped us up.  

Can you move and then ready a standard action? The consensus on the Twitter was "yes". The "ready" action says that you can prepare a standard action, which implies that you could make a move first to set it up.

Cleave: Do you take the -2 to AC if you *do not* hit your enemy after taking the "cleave" standard action? Yes. According to James Jacobs, Cleave in Pathfinder is a standard action; as part of the standard action, you pay the -2 penalty regardless of whether you hit.

Ranged touch attacks: Does the -4 penalty for firing into melee apply? We didn't find a good official answer for this -- it was all implied from the rules, which state "When you are the target of a touch attack, your AC doesn't include any armor bonus, shield bonus, or natural armor bonus. All other modifiers, such as your size modifier, Dexterity modifier, and deflection bonus (if any) apply normally." I'd lump the modifier for firing into melee into the "all other modifiers" bit of that rule. The Paizo forums and Twitter agreed, but I'd like to find an official ruling to clarify this, given that we have two sorcerers in the party.

Taking 10 on Hazards: Taking 10 on an skill check allows you to prepare for a check, and get an average result. The idea is that you're taking the extra time necessary to do a decent (if not exceptional) job. It's a simple mechanic, but I managed to over think it last night. There's a CR1 hazard encounter in Crypt of the Everflame which involves our heroes making their way to the bottom of a treacherous ravine. It requires three DC 10 Acrobatics check. The first two players -- equipped with rope and making sure to be careful (but not taking 10) -- succeeded, but not without getting a few bumps and scrapes. The third, seeing how the first two had gotten banged up going down the cliffside, decided to take off his armor and take 10.

For some reason, this didn't compute with me. I envisioned Taking 10 as being something you did in more mundane circumnstances, where the Treacherous Ravine was more like a mini skill challenge. Plus, why would you make the DC 10 if you could take 10 and auto succeed? In retrospect, the answer is obvious: penalities. If you were still wearing armor, or if you had a bad Dexterity score, it's possible to get a negative modifier to the Take 10 check that causes your average result to fall below 10.