Friday, September 29, 2023

Why Pathfinder Sucks

HAHAHA. Sorry...sometimes I amuse myself.

This post comes c/o reader "Mach," who emailed me the following:
I was reading your blog about the various editions and I found a bit where you said you didn't think pathfinder was suitable for the type of long term campaign play you had in mind. Could you expound on that please? Reason I ask is because I'm a little worried and mainly curious, I've run a fair bit of pathfinder and I'm worried there might be something I'm missing or a cliff somewhere at higher levels or some such. Or maybe it causes players to drift away to other games, or some such more subtle issue.
I sent Mach a response (as I tend to do when folks write me questions like that). Mach, for his part, appreciated my answers and suggested I incorporate it into a blog post "so that I'm not the only one that will benefit from it." 

I have (good) friends who
LOVE Pathfinder...FYI
Since it's Friday, and yesterday's reflections were (perhaps) less-than-useful to (many) readers, I offer the following elaboration on previous statements (of mine) that Pathfinder is (maybe) not the best system for long-term campaign play. From my email to Mach:
My thoughts on the unsuitability of Pathfinder to long-term play is based on A) my experience with the D20 (3rd edition) D&D system on which PF was based, and B) my thoughts on just what entails "long-term play." 

That being said, I will readily admit that I have no experience playing Pathfinder, and I haven't even read the latest edition of PF, nor do I have any idea of the changes to the system with the new version. Perhaps, PF2 is more suitable to (what I consider) long-term play and I am simply ignorant of the fact. 

The issue I have with D20 (which colors my perception of PF) is that, over the course of playing, the inherent complexity of the game scales in a way that makes the thing untenable. D&D is a game that begins simply...even the third edition...and adds complexity as the game progresses (i.e. as characters gain levels and access more content). More information needs to be mastered by the players of course, but far more information by the DMs. But the mechanical complexity of D20 is such that, over the course of play: 
  1. it becomes extremely cumbersome for the DM, such that they quit or end the campaign (I've seen this personally on two occasions), AND/OR 
  2. the DM begins discarding "excess" rules, or ignoring rules that make running the campaign "burdensome." But D20 is a mechanically complex game, fine-tuned to an extreme degree, and easily thrown out of whack when rules are bypassed. 
Sure, there are probably some DMs may have a higher capacity for the minutia of running a D20 campaign at mid- to high-levels (I've seen DMs throw up their hands as early as level 7; I've seen DMs try running adventures for 15th level PCs (pre-gens) that gave up after a single encounter). But are the rules conducive to long-term play? Do they facilitate it? 

In comparison, AD&D (1E) is a robust system that provides depth without the added complexity/fiddly-ness. Monsters operate on a different scale than players. PCs, for the most part, "plateau" after reaching "name" level: their abilities increase but not in the same exponential capacity. There is less information to juggle; more attention can be paid (by the DM) to the campaign world, as opposed to making sure encounters are properly balanced and the various mechanical t's are crossed and i's dotted. In this way, 1E is more conducive to long-term comparison to 3E/PF. 

3E (again, the basis for Pathfinder) had a LOT of material written for it...including high level material (the Epic Level Handbook and whatnot). In THEORY the game will function at high levels... 

[why do I continue to bring up "high level" play? Because over time...i.e. over the "long-term"...characters progress, gain x.p. and become high level. High level play is a part of long-term play] THEORY the game functions at high levels. It has the rules, the mechanics, the support to make the game function. The practicality, however, makes it (in my opinion) cumbersome. Because long-term play is MORE than just having the content to fulfill the needs of a 12th or 14th level party. 

To run a long-term campaign, you need to build a world: a world of sufficient depth to provide meaning to the (imaginary) lives of the PCs. They need to be able to do more than simply plumb the next dungeon or go on the next quest...such adventures will, in time, inevitably PALE, if they have neither meaning nor relevance to the game world. 

And so you need to build a world. But in a system where one must have level 12 citizens and level 3 artisans and level 9 nobles and monsters with six stats, skills, and that type of system, the burden of creating a deep world is IMMENSELY cumbersome. 

Whereas, in a simpler system (say AD&D) I can say "90% of the people in this town are 0-level and possess d6 hit points." I can stat out the duke or burgormeister or tavern owner or stable boy with the roll of a D6. Rather than having to worry about the excessive mechanics, the minutia, I can focus on their personal goals, their relationships with other NPCs, the various things they might have to offer the PCs, etc. 

I don't have to worry about how feats and skills interact with the environment when there are no feats and skills. See? 
And then...what? Start over again at 1st level? What's the endgame here? 

"Long-term play" is not about reaching an endpoint. It's not about getting to a particular level...though (as I said) played long enough, characters will reach high levels. It's about having a perpetual game, a dynamic world, that players get to dip their toes into and experience...and live in for a time. The game aspects (the systems, the mechanics) are part of it...part of the game, part of the fun...but they are not the End All Be All. The WORLD you are building...and the legends the players create within the world...are the thing that's important. And that takes a fine balance: a system (or "rules") that have depth and complexity but not so much that it's overwhelming...just enough to model what needs to be modeled, to model those bits of reality that require rules. 

So that the game can last. So that YOU (the DM) can fully engage your imagination and yet still run the game in a practical, functional fashion. 

You can do "long term play" with ANY edition of Dungeons & Dragons (I think)...but some editions make it easier to do. And some make it harder.
There...something for Friday afternoon musings.


  1. "To run a long-term campaign, you need to build a world: a world of sufficient depth to provide meaning to the (imaginary) lives of the PCs. They need to be able to do more than simply plumb the next dungeon or go on the next quest...such adventures will, in time, inevitably PALE, if they have neither meaning nor relevance to the game world."

    Do GMs create sandboxes like this for versions of D&D 3e and onward? My impression of most "high level campaigns" for the modern editions is that they consist of a series of linear adventures that end when either the DM's story has been told of they can no longer be bothered to come up with encounters to challenge the player characters' wild assortment of powers. But I'm in a cynical mood - maybe there are DMs out there running modern editions in sandbox fashion

    1. I've been a player in a 5e West Marches play-by-post game for over 6 years now. It's pretty fun, but it's not really a deep game the way JB describes. Explore the next hex, raid the next dungeon, investigate the next strange location, interact with the next oddball NPC...

      Because it's PbP, the pace is slow. But we're allowed multiple PCs as long as they're in different groups, so the piecemeal tapestry of this wilderness can be explored more. But that's all there is (for now). Not much world building. Not much potential to transition to an "endgame" phase of lordship or planar adventures or other hallmarks of old school high level play. If a PC has run their course, they retire and the player can make a new one or quit the game.

  2. Mechanics that facilitate long-term play in earlier editions of the game are 1) a leveling off of characters' individual competence, as you've noted, and 2) mechanics for domain play. Third edition dropped the concept of achieving "name level" and all mention of "territory development" in exchange for an ever-increasing level of character competence up to a 20th level ceiling. In consequence, the rules in the core 3e books don't support the sort of play that 1e does at higher levels: clearing a territory, attracting settlers, raising an army, and so on. Since it's up to the 3e or later DM to make that up whole, or borrow rules from other games or earlier editions, it seems unlikely that DMs coming from later editions would bother with that or know what they and their players were missing.

    1. Which is perhaps why 5E has moved further and further toward narrative style play…folks are hoping/tenting to deepen/enrich their play experience.

  3. While I think your fundamental critique of 3e's high-level complexity has a point, your claim that 1e AD&D is a robust system providing depth without complexity and fiddliness is...

    It is very strange, because I agree with many of your critiques of 3e, but 1e is worse.

    That second thing you refer to, re discarding cumbersome rules? Happens constantly, and immediately, in AD&D. Online discussions of the combat rules (especially re segments and surprise segments) make that pretty damn clear. Also, the bit where you have percentiles interacting with "roll on a d6" is just silly. Not to mention the frankly garbage way in which the rules are written. Indeed, I would suggest all 1e AD&D rules are inherently cumbersome, because they're from 1e AD&D. Editing was invented before the 21st century, but you wouldn't know it from reading 1e. The idea that AD&D is not mechanically complex is simply incorrect. If it is not mechanically complex, it taking as many pages as it does to express its ideas is just embarrassing.

    The 3e DMG specifically mentions how NPC characters are unlikely to be above fourth or fifth level and most will be much lower (and generally the tables bear this out). Nor, frankly, do you need to figure out all this detail ahead of time. Nor does anything require you to roll stats for each character - using the 10/10/10/10/10/10 is perfectly reasonable (it's what almost all the video games do, at that). Assign their skill points as they are needed. Oh, and 1e also suggests statting out NPCs, and provides a set of rules you are supposed to use in addition to all the PHB ones. Nor does it provide any real guidance on what the world actually looks like - you have to figure all details out yourself. 3e offers exactly the same ability to just make shit up, along with actual rules you can use if you want.

    I would also note that the 1e DMG provides no real guidance on interacting with NPCs in a fashion other than killing them, so the idea that reality is sufficiently modelled seems pretty damn thin. What are the odds of sneaking past an NPC? Of stealing from them? Of convincing them of something? Of them knowing some particular fact? Of them existing at all in the particular town? But hey, I can work out their height. That's useful. No way I could guess at THAT. Meanwhile, 3e's got rules for attracting followers, and for building strongholds. Both lack mass combat rules, and given domain play is an actual focus of 1e that's...not good.

    Also, you want to talk interacting with a world? 3e assumes the world already exists without the characters. That they have to figure out their place in a wider milieu, rather than some ahistorical wilderness that somehow doesn't have anybody in it yet, even hostile powers, but which is worth settling. People talk a lot about domain play, but domain play presumes a world that is unlike any world that has ever actually existed, and I'm not talking about the orcs.

    Anyway. I would actually concur that 3e throws far too many powers and special abilities and this and that around, and that that is problematic at higher levels. I think significantly stripping down most of the classes would do wonders for the game. But dear God, the idea that 1e AD&D engages with these problems better than 3e does is painfully wrong. Where it does engage, it's often worse, and there's plenty of times it just doesn't engage at all.

    1. Perhaps it would be helpful for me to define what I mean by a ROBUST system, like AD&D. Here I'm using the term to mean:

      - of sturdy construction
      - able to withstand (or overcome) adversity

      This, the 1E system does, in large part because of the extensive play-testing that went into creating it. It is fairly difficult to "break" AD&D...even sawing off the occasional extraneous rule, the system is one such that it can survive such "pruning." Likewise, it can sustain a lot of extra "stuff" that one wants to add to the game, so long as the initial rules (as set out in the PHB and DMG) aren't altered terribly, there's plenty of space to "add to" and "add on."

      However, even without such additions, the core three books provide substantial game play value...from low levels to high...precisely because it was hardened and fired in the crucible of actual play. And creating adventure scenarios for AD&D characters of all tiers (low to high) is immensely easy given nothing but the core three books.

      D20, on the other hand, is a finicky game whose core assumptions of play (such as the CR system of advancement) are easily wrecked if monkeyed with. What's more the amount of mechanical complexity increases in direct proportion to the tier of game play, making it more cumbersome to continue play over the long haul.

      1E is no more cumbersome to run at high levels than at mid-levels...and not much more difficult than at low levels. An adventure for characters of levels 9-12 (say, one of the Giant modules) takes no more page count than the Village of Hommlet or Keep on the Borderlands.

      I can quibble with your interpretation of what the 1E DMG does and does not offer with regard to instructions for interacting with NPCs, both guidelines and specific system mechanics. I can write how the 1E's inherent robustness allows a far greater range and variety of encounters at any level than does D20 (and certainly with minimal comparative fuss). I can discuss at length how the asymmetrical class structure allows the players to more deeply engage with the material in a meaningful fashion, despite any perceived "lack."

      But even if I did, I infer from your comment that it wouldn't matter much. You dislike the layout, editing, complexity, and general lack of 'user friendliness' of the 1E books. You've made it abundantly clear that the "garbage way in which the rules are written" is the main thing sticking in your craw...and not one thing I write about 1E can change an aesthetic that disagrees, nor magically rearrange Gygax's words for clarity and succinctness.

      As I wrote in my email to Mach:

      You can do "long term play" with ANY edition of Dungeons & Dragons (I think)...but some editions make it easier to do. And some make it harder.

      My experience has led me to put 1E in the category of "editions that make long-term play easier." My experience with D20 has led me to the conclusion that it does not fall in this category. Perhaps your experiences have been different...but I can only share my own.

    2. Once upon a time, for ten straight runnings, with the encouragement of the party who loved the experience and often speak of it with great affection as a turning point in their game interest, I ran a combat with 700 participants - goblins, ogres, player characters, hirelings, followers, drow elves, horses, ballistae and one massive mastodon the one player had acquired earlier ... without abbreviating or reducing my normal combat rules. This means that to run any given round, it mean hundreds of attack and damage rolls, one after another, with ripple effects of morale checks and damage effects running through masses of combatants poised against each other.

      Run that in 3e. Assigning all the characters their feats and calculating all the d20 rolls just as if it were a combat between four combatants against four.

    3. JB:
      3e was also extensively playtested. I believe for longer than 1e, though I could be mistaken on that. Your view that 1e was playtested more certainly is not one I have ever seen expressed elsewhere. Nor, frankly, does it make much sense with the bit where 3e playtesting was famously large and was coordinated by a large company with access to the Internet and 1e was coordinated by "who's available locally," by a company which was struggling with all kinds of aspects of a new business and which had basically never playtested anything before. Not to mention the occasional section that Gygax claimed to have basically just included because people said they wanted it, but that they were never actually used. Have you got evidence for this 'playtested more' idea?

      I would also note there is a significant lack of high-level AD&D adventures vs low-level ones, and that we both regularly read a blog where the author has commented on how rare they are (especially of quality), so claiming that it's easy to produce them seems questionable. So no, it's not particularly easy to make good high-level content for 1e.

      And no, my objection is limited to the godawful rules layout. I spent most of my comment talking about how 3e makes it as easy or easier to build a world than 1e for a reason - because you claimed that that was what made long-term play easier.

      3e makes it at least as easy to build a world as 1e, because 3e gives you actual tools to build a world, and to do things other than combat, and 1e does not. If by "build a world" what you mean is "throw combat stats out quickly and make everything else up as I go" then yes, 1e is probably superior - but so are tons of rulesets including "let's all play pretend."

      So no, it's not just about the ability to build a world. Or, if it is, 1e is not at all special in that regard (and there are a lot of other rulesets that are probably a lot better at it, since they'll combine simple combat stats AND worldbuilding tools that default 1e lacks).

      I'm not sure "you can do a 700-person combat in this system in 20-40 hours" (and I would note that your combat system is not RAW 1e AD&D) proves much of anything. Yes, 3e's combat's more involved than 1e's. If that's the major consideration in your worldbuilding you're doing something wrong.

    4. @Alexis Don't forget how many attacks each combatant will have, at different bonuses. A Level 7 fighter has a BaB of 7/2. Assuming he's not dual wielding. And you need remember all the other modifiers. And that the wizard cast Bull's Strength on him. Oh, is the target he's attacking Flat-footed? Don't forget that it really is optimal for the fighter to exchange some portion of his attack bonus into damage using Power Attack, and he is going to need to choose each round the discreet amount of bonus he is switching from one side to the other. Also 3rd edition doesn't have morale checks so every single combatant is fighting to the death I guess. I mean, probably to the death of that player that you strangle the 3rd or 4th time he decides to grapple instead of attacking.

      AD&D's rules may be less uniform than 3rd edition, but there are far, far fewer moving parts, and almost none of those parts have a chance to be moved every single round by every single character.

    5. My runnings are 4-5 hours long per session, and were 6-7 hours at the time I ran that combat. If anything, my combat system's more complex.

      It's quite clear you have no idea, Simulated Knave, how I approach "major considerations" in worldbuilding. Feel free to educate yourself about that.

      JB's point was that AD&D is more FLEXIBLE. Yet your reply to me, if what I want to run is huge mass combats using all the rules, then "I'm doing something wrong." That doesn't sound very flexible to me.

    6. Oh, boy.

      The AD&D core books were developed from OD&D, which was the only (complete) form of D&D from 1974-1979. It is quite clearly an amalgamation of the original three books, the supplements that followed, Strategic Review magazine, and one or two other publications (TSR's "Monsters & Treasure Assortment," for example). The rules were meant to be a codification of "the game was being played" (this per the original publishers, including Gygax, Mike Carr, Tim Kask, etc.) as an updated and unified rule system. It was thus "tested" over five years of extensive play by the developers in Wisconsin, and through their various sponsored conventions across the United States (GenCon, owned and operated by TSR from 1975 till 1997, was running events in California beginning in '76 and Florida beginning '78...there were also associated conventions, outside of GenCon, that acted as testing grounds for various TSR publications).

      Conversely, WotC did not purchase the Dungeons & Dragons IP until 1997, and rolled out D20 in 2000. That's a lot less play-testing.

      Over the course of AD&D's original, 1st edition run, TSR published more than 80+ adventure modules for the game. That's adventures for AD&D only...not adventure modules designed for use with the B/X or BECMI versions of the game. Of these, at least 20 (nearly one-quarter) are designed to accommodate PCs above 9th level...that's 20 *not* counting various "super module" compilations (nor some truly terribly Ravenloft sequels). Were one to include the CM, M, and certain high-level X-modules (all readily adaptable to 1E), that number would double.

      In contrast, WotC published a grand total of 31 adventure modules for the D20 system, of which only FIVE were written for characters of levels 10+. Your estimation that there is a "significant lack of high-level AD&D adventures vs low-level ones" seems inaccurate, at least in comparison to D20's offerings. What % of adventures do you feel should be written for high level adventurers?

    7. [cont.]

      Your objection that AD&D fails to offer mechanical support for high level play (other than combat) is a non-starter for me. The desire to have mechanical systems at every tier in every subsection of play is a false god. Not every aspect of the fictional environment requires a stat, a level, a skill roll, a point-buy. For individuals who want to build the entire world based on points with a unified system mechanic, there already exists GURPS. There already exists HERO system. I do not require a system to determine the population of a town; I do not require extended mechanics to determine whether or not the neighboring barony is formulating a plot against PC ruler.

      And yet mechanics ARE provided for those things that need systems: combat (at all levels of experience). Magical research. Followers and henchfolk and hirelings. Costs of building materials and labor. Mass combat (Swords & Spells is readily usable with AD&D, or you can use the later BattleSystem).

      As for how to create geographies, ecologies, political factions, Gygax provides the most useful (if surreptitious) advice I could want: go research it. Use real world examples to model your fantastic world. I suppose some folks want a random table to generate faerie forests, goblin-infested mountains, and magical rivers. But if I am DM and God of MY world, I want a bit more control than a d20 roll on some table. I can decide the shape of my own coins, thank you very much.

      But, no...I don't require a system to make a 15th level baker ("artisan"). I don't need to know the Wisdom or Charisma of the trolls living under the bridge. I don't need to roll "sense motive" skill versus "bluff" skill, factoring in the various "synergy bonuses" and feat adjustments to see if I can figure out the orc shaman is lying. Complexity for complexity's sake isn't laudable in my book. And it has repercussions, as well (repercussions that have already been discussed, elsewhere, ad nauseum).

      But really, SK, if you want to play Pathfinder...or your long-term campaign system of choice, go ahead. By all means, play the game that allows you to run the best game you can run. I can assure you, I'll be doing the same.
      ; )

  4. I entered this post ready to do battle with you on behalf of Pathfinder's honor. I played the hell out of that system. Then I realized... you're right. It does lend itself to overly complex systems, and I was left with the option of either ignoring the ones that made play cumbersome (and the ones I couldn't remember off the top of my head) while also making up rules for mass combat, manors, running a business, etc... The thing is, I've been doing that since 1st edition, so I didn't really notice it. Statting out high level NPC's was ridiculously lugubrious in Pathfinder, but I did it lovingly all the same.
    It's all irrelevant now anyway. I ditched the system a long time ago for 5th edition. And I exclusively game online since the pandemic. No more miniatures, no maps to lug around. Just me, my laptop, Discord and Roll20 and I'm fine.
    There's fodder for a future rant of yours -- online RPGing. ;)

    1. When I first got back into the D&D hobby (circa 2009), after close to 20 years hiatus, it was via online gaming. Probably I've played on-line less than a dozen times over the years...mostly B/X, some OD&D, and even some 1E.

      Playing on-line is...fine. Running games on-line, though? THAT I haven't done (unless you count having a couple players show up via Skype when they couldn't make it in person). And I don't want to, either. I can handle a table of players...but a monitor of scrolling numbers? No. That's not a skill I'm interested in learning.

      At this point anyway. Maybe some day.