Sunday, May 1, 2011

Bringing Some Old-School Principles Into Pathfinder

Disclaimer: As usual, there are probably no revolutionary ideas here. Just my thinking out loud, mostly.

This Saturday we will have our 6th session of our Pathfinder game that was started using the Rise of the Runelords adventure path. Last session the group completed the first of the six volumes in that adventure path and reached level 4.

On the side, we've played a few sessions of B/X D&D, and I've tried to get the players excited about it. They have graciously humored me, but so far they still have a definite preference for Pathfinder. I don't really blame them. Pathfinder has tons of options to help you build an awesome character of your own design, and those options translate into actual game mechanics that support your favored style of play, which legitimizes it all in the mind of a lot of players. The drawback is that the GM has to have a high level of rules mastery in order to keep the game flowing and minimize interruptions for rules lookups. Having been playing the game for 6 months, but with no previous 3.5 experience, I am getting there, but there are still plenty of gaps.

Enter the old-school.

I've been consuming vast quantities of information pertaining to the OSR on forums and blogs since last fall. I've purchased (or otherwise aquired) and read OD&D, Holmes, B/X, Swords & Wizardry (all 3), LotFP, OSRIC (haven't actually read that one haha) and tons of other homebrew house rules documents. As a result, I feel I have gained a lot of insight into what sorts of things I like and don't like, and what works and doesn't work at the table, and I will be injecting a lot of the results of those lessons into my Pathfinder game.

Step 1: The "Adventure Path" is no longer. I will still mine the books for content and a potential overall story, but the players will no longer be led by the nose in a "hey, the adventure is over here!" manner. Luckily, the setting we are in is actually extremely supportive of sandbox-style play, and we will be going much more in that direction, with the players deciding where they want to go. The next session will begin with each player being given an index card with a rumor on it that they've learned in town since arriving back from their last adventure. They can learn more rumors by interacting with people around town. The writeup for the town of Sandpoint in the first issue of the adventure path is decidedly old-school, as it is just a keyed map of the town with a few sentences describing each location and the NPCs that can usually be found there. It even features it's own "huge ruined pile", which most people mistakenly believe to be an ancient lighthouse. Stonehell Dungeon is going in under that sucker!

Step 2: Sprinkle in some modules. As mentioned, I will be placing Stonehell underneath Sandpoint. The party has already discovered some small dungeon spaces underneath the town, and the adventure path implies that there is more, it just doesn't go through the trouble of fleshing it out. Mega-dungeoneering will become an option for the group if they are interested. I'll also be placing Charnel Crypt of the Sightless Serpent in the Mushfen swamps to the south. I also have plenty of one-page dungeons and things like that in my campaign binder to use as resources if needed. Vornheim is on it's way, and I definitely plan to use it should the adventurers find their way to Magnimar, Kaer Maga, or Korvosa. But the one I'm most excited about is that I've placed Death Frost Doom in the Devil's Platter, not far from the town. Last session the party got their asses handed to them by a greater barghest in the lower levels of the dungeon they were in, and were lucky to escape with their lives. I have a strong feeling they are going to want to exact revenge on the monster, and they are likely to learn of a powerful sword long lost in the ancient shrine of a death cult of Urgathoa that would help them get it. The hook is perfect. The hardest part is going to be for me to not railroad them into it, so strong is my desire to see those events play out. I even bought a Bag O Zombies, just in case. I have no idea how they would approach the events in DFD.

Step 3: Add randomness. I was surprised to see that the Bestiary already had random monster tables in the back (although the Bestiary 2 sadly does not). In the adventure path, there is little to support the use of wandering monsters and random happenings, and honestly for a beginner GM in Pathfinder, wandering monsters are a bad idea. The stat blocks are too complex to be able to expect a new GM to flip to a monster entry without ever having seen it before and run it in a meaningful way. However, I think I've reached the point where I am comfortable enough to use random monsters, and I've created the following table for the wilderness surrounding the town, a.k.a. the Sandpoint Hinterlands:

The Local Wilderness
Encounter Type (d6)
1-4 = Monsters
5-6 = Other

Monsters (d12)
  1. Army Ant Swarm (Bestiary 16)
  2. 1d3 Winter Wolves (Bestiary 280)
  3. 1d6 Giant Wasps (Bestiary 275)
  4. 2d4 Goblins plus 1d3 Goblin Dogs (Bestiary 156-157)
  5. Owlbear (50% chance it is 2 Owlbears making sexytime with each other) (Bestiary 224)
  6. Young Green Dragon, "Xaldraxis" (Bestiary 96)
  7. Dire Boar (Bestiary 36)
  8. 2d8 Bandits, one has a single-shot gun (GameMastery Guide 258)
  9. Ettin (Bestiary 130)
  10. Ghost (Bestiary 144)
  11. 1d4+1 Gnolls plus 1d2 Hyenas (Bestiary 155, 179)
  12. 1d3 Amphisbaena (Bestiary2 25)
Other (d10)
  1. 3d10 Aurochs (Bestiary 174)
  2. Varisian (Gypsy) Caravan
  3. Robbery Victim
  4. Roadside Shrine
  5. 1d6+6 Brownies (Bestiary2 49)
  6. Lyrakien (Potential to give the party some sort of buff) (Bestiary2 138)
  7. Senile Old Lady, wandering aimlessly and talking to herself
  8. 1d12+2 Blink Dogs, only speak Sylvan (Bestiary2 47)
  9. Dead Guy with a map in his pack
  10. Rival Adventuring Party! (need to stat these guys up)
Step 4: De-emphasize the focus on balance. Despite what many think, just because Pathfinder has challenge ratings (CR), doesn't mean the party needs to be spoon-fed level-appropriate encounters. The CR is simply a tool to give the GM an idea if an encounter is going to shit all over the players or not. This is reflected in the tables above. Some of the encounters are easy. Some will have a 99% chance of TPK if the party tries to fight the whole way through. And some could go either way depending on how many creatures the dice say are there. Those numbers aren't mine, either. I was actually surprised to find numbers in the bestiary in the style of OD&D/AD&D's "No. Enc." There they were, staring right at me. I had just never noticed it before. Here is the entry for Gnolls:
Organization solitary, pair, hunting party (2–5
gnolls and 1–2 hyenas), band (10–100 adults plus
50% noncombatant children, 1 sergeant of 3rd
level per 20 adults, 1 leader of 4th–6th level, and
5–8 hyenas), or tribe (20–200 plus 1 sergeant of 3rd
level per 20 adults, 1 or 2 lieutenants of 4th or 5th
level, 1 leader of 6th–8th level, 7–12 hyenas, and 4–7
That's so totally AD&D, I was floored to see it. It's just that so far I have only run games from the adventure path books, and they have each encounter laid out with an exact number of creatures, so I was oblivious to this info in the Bestiary.

In addition to this, I will be making some use of old-school Morale rules wherever I deem it appropriate to do so. It will help shorten some combats, and possibly save the party's ass on occasion.

Step 5: Add hirelings/henchmen. I'm not sure if there's rules for this or not in PF - I'll have to take another look. But in the last dungeon the party was in, they found a mercenary guy, and I think it would be cool to have him tag along with the party, and probably eventually die a horrible gruesome death, or serve as a catalyst for new adventures, since he is actually a wanted man. I just think these guys add a lot to the game, and also give the opportunity to inflict horrible things on the party with little actual ramifications to the player's beloved characters.

Step 6: Don't be afraid to make a ruling. In past sessions, I often spent a great deal of time looking shit up, because I wanted to do things by the book, else I felt I was Doing It Wrong. All this really did was slow the game down and create a situation where it was very easy for the players to become disengaged. Although I may not have then, I feel that today I have a much better understanding of the overall philosophy of D&D since it's origins, and am better equipped to make on-the-spot rulings. Is the DC 12 or 15? Who the fuck cares, just roll a die and if it's a good roll you succeed, if it's a bad roll, you fail. It's not like the Pathfinder Police are going to come take me off in cuffs for disregarding certain rules that only come up maybe once per 500 hours of play. There is a lot of advice in the GameMastery Guide about giving your game a more "fast and loose" style, and I would do well to pay more attention to that advice.

Step 7: Not every combat has to involve minis. Our group uses minis, both plastic and metal. We love them. Collectively we have probably spent well over $1000.00, perhaps much more, on minis in the past year. Thus, we will likely never abandon the use of them completely. However, I do want to do some experimenting with doing mini-less combat occasionally, just to see how it goes.

I think that covers enough for now. The game is next Saturday, so I'll be reporting on how it went afterwards.

When I first sat down to start working on this approach, I thought I was some kind of mad genius. Turns out, Pathfinder really does have a lot of support already built-in for sandbox-style play, I just didn't notice since that wasn't the mode my mind was in. Even in the adventure path books themselves, there is advice on expanding, modifying, and otherwise making the material your own. The GameMastery Guide is chock-full of tables and tools to support off-the-cuff GMing. The thing is that I think you need to already have a certain level of familiarity with the rules before you have enough brain bandwidth left over to run a sandbox in this system, and thus it's not something someone new to Pathfinder could easily jump into.

The Inner Sea World Guide also does an AWESOME job at painting the world with broad strokes - just enough little tidbits of ideas to spark a GM's imagination. Basically the country of Varisia, where we are currently playing, is littered with ruins of an ancient empire that was run by crazy sorcerers. Pretty much nothing is known about the ancient empire of Thassilon, but they sure left behind a lot of cool stuff for adventurers to explore!



  1. Yup. I've been thinking along these lines recently as well. I've never been part of the school that believes an Old School playing style belongs with Old School rules.
    Don't get me wrong, some rules lend themselves to an OSR style of play more than others. But Pathfinder strikes me as being Old Schoolable. I'll be keeping track of your progress with great interest.

  2. Hmm. Come to think of it, the guys at Paizio went a bit old school themselves a few years ago with the Age of Wyrms campaign in Dungeon magazine.
    The first adventure: the Whsipering Cairn, was a brutal Dungeon romp. I can't remember exactly how many pcs bought it in that first dungeon but believe me when I tell you it was a lot.

  3. Indeed. I bought a hard copy of that issue (Dungeon #124) a few months back after reading about it in Kobold Quarterly #1. It's a very beefy adventure, and it came with a great color poster map of the starting village. The poster map alone makes it worth the price of the issue.

  4. The Pathfinder setting and core is very easily able to be given that Old School touch. I have a campaign running in Varisia according to 1e homebrew rules :)

  5. That's a great point about CRs, and the whole project sounds like fun!