General Expectations of How I GM
The following document outlines what to expect when playing in a campaign GMed by me. I feel this is necessary to help acclimate new players to my work, which tends to stray very far from how other Game Masters run Pathfinder.
Player and Enemy Power Levels
The one recurring element in my campaigns is that characters tend to be much more powerful than vanilla Pathfinder. It’s not uncommon for players to find custom items or pick up templates that drastically improve their abilities. Some examples from past campaigns include:
Custom magic items, like magic knives that can cut out souls.
Readily available lycanthropy, half-dragon, or augmented creature templates.
Access to mythic power, Paizo’s version of Epic rules that essentially turns characters into demigods.
These will generally work in the player’s favor, but I have no qualms about handing this traits to enemies or making players work to become grossly overpowered. These will always be options during a campaign, but they will rarely be easily earned or have obvious functions.
Furthermore, every character in my setting, players and enemies alike, that has class levels is a gestalt character; one of their classes is an NPC class (warrior, expert, ect), and the second is a normal class (fighter, rogue, ect). I first encountered this idea in a one-shot James Powers ran once and really liked the concept, so I’m trying it out here to make all characters more versatile. Players will be stronger, but so will enemies with this mechanic. This will be taken to its most logical extremes with NPC dragons and giants, which will use the taninim and jotun races and the Draconic Exemplar and Jotun Paragon classes as replacements for their NPC classes (players who choose to play taninim or jotun will not have this option in most campaign leads; I never said this mechanic would always benefit the players).
Finally, feats that are generally ubiquitous or considered “feat taxes” such as Power Attack, Deadly Aim, and Weapon Finesse are given out for free, while other feats I consider useless or never used that I like in concept have been merged with others or given extra functionality to make them more appealing. This is to encourage players to build more versatile characters, even the playing field somewhat between experienced optimizers and casual players, and let particular character concepts come to fruition sooner. One warning to optimizers however: if I think your character is significantly stronger than the current power curve, I will compensate by making encounters more difficult; RPGs aren’t as fun when there’s no threat of death.
How I Build Encounters
When building encounters, I completely ignore Paizo’s suggestions on the matter and don’t bother counting earned EXP at all. This is because I think CR is a flawed measure of what an enemy is actually capable of, and it’s less of a pain in the ass to level players by milestones and quests completed instead of tracking EXP. Instead, I make the following assumptions at the outset of a campaign:
Enemies with CRs 5 under the players’ current level are functionally useless, and characters can batter away at them all day with little to no consequence.
Enemies with CRs 4 under the players’ level are grunts, and every character should be able to take about 4 of them on their own in a fair fight.
Enemies with CRs 2 under the players’ level are about half as strong as any given player character.
Enemies with CRs equal to the players’ level can fight a single PC on roughly equal footing, with a slight advantage in the player’s favor.
Enemies 1 CR higher than the players are tough and can typically fight and defeat one PC on their own.
Enemies 2 CRs higher than the players are seriously dangerous and can just about match 2 players at once.
Enemies 4 CRs higher than the players can take on a party of 4 characters and have a good chance of bringing someone down before being defeated.
An enemy 5 CRs higher than the players can fight the entire group at once and will drop 1 or more players before being defeated, and it’s a toss up whether they defeat the entire party on their own.
From there, I measure the party’s rough fighting capabilities after the first session and balance encounters accordingly around my estimates. About 99 percent of the possible combat scenarios players come across in my campaigns are beatable, and it will usually be painfully obvious if and when the players find someone who is out of their league and they have no chance of beating in a straight fight.
For Example: The introduction to my last campaign ended with the players returning to the town they were adventuring out of and finding it destroyed by a black dragon, who was still present on site, playing with her food. About half the civilians in the town were killed, and the other half were disfigured and injured to the point they would most likely never be able to work again, because black dragons are cruel and sadistic assholes and this one wanted some survivors left behind to tell tales of her cruelty. She let the players live and flew off after some villain banter, and fortunately no one in the party was stupid enough to attack her. I had two indicators of power level here: the sheer number of dead or broken civilians, and a detailed description of the various magic items adorning the dragon, far more than an enemy on the players’ level should have had.
If players are somehow caught in a no-win scenario, either by bad luck, bad planning, or bad judgment, one of the following will happen:
Players will have a chance to escape through an obvious escape route
Players who can’t escape will be knocked unconscious and later have a chance to either escape or be rescued. They might bear scars from their capture, but dropping in combat and being abandoned is rarely the end for a character in my setting.
I am not a big fan of intentional player killing and therefore will rarely perform coup-de-graces on players; the only time I’ll do it is if it’s the only advantageous option for an enemy to do. If all the players are dropped in a TPK, I will probably write this off as the players getting captured and generate a sequence where the players have a chance to escape; TPKs are usually a GM error, and I don’t believe in penalizing players for my own fuck-ups. There are exceptions for circumstances in which an enemy has no reason to keep it’s foe alive (for example, why would an abnormally large lion keep a PC alive if it intends to eat them?), but those instances should be fairly obvious and telegraphed by either the enemy type or information the players uncover about their foes ahead of time. When in doubt, ask, or trust me to do my job and guide the players.
Why I Am Using a Wounds System
I first encountered a Wounds system in a campaign run by James; he did it to both make harder to kill players and to introduce penalties for continually dropping below 0 Hit Points. I liked the system because of how it encourages players to think tactically and not take stupid risks that can kill them, and I have therefore decided to use a modified version of that same system in my own games. However, I have heard complaints about this mechanic in the past, so I’d like to address those criticisms and explain the reasoning behind some of my alterations to James’ system in hopes of persuading players to give it a chance.
I feel useless after taking a wound
Under James’ original system, characters suffered a -1 penalty to all rolls per wound they received. I think this is a reasonable penalty for continually taking damage, but other players have expressed concern that getting too many wounds made them useless until they recovered. I think that misses the entire point of having a system like this, but I’ll concede that having a straight -1 to all rolls per wound gives little room for error and is a bit harsh if all the player does is make one mistake and therefore suffers 2 or more wounds in a single hit; therefore, I’m letting players have a little bit of a buffer before they start taking penalties.
Basically, characters can take a number of wounds equal to their Constitution modifier before they start taking penalties; after that point, they suffer the negatives to rolls and run the risk of more serious injuries like broken limbs or concussions. It makes sense to me that a character with higher Constitution can take more pain before it impacts their performance in combat, and it offers a buffer for the characters most harmed by a Wounds system to continue performing their role for the group. My hope is that this will not be overly punishing to players and allow them greater leeway to take risks after getting hurt, though not so much that it defeats the purpose of having a wounds system.
Wounds take away my Downtime
Under James’ originally system, the only way to recover from a wound was bed rest; a character trained in the Heal skill could speed up the process, but they would always need to spend some time lying around and doing nothing to get better. I think this is realistic, but players with Martial characters (characters with full BAB who attack on the frontlines) complain that it prevents them from RPing while they have downtime between sessions, which is also reasonable.
I’m still going to require bed rest as the primary means of recovering wounds, but I will allow Restoration spells to speed up the process; Cure Wounds cannot do it since that spell line only addresses hit point damage, but I think it’s reasonable that a spell that can cure ability damage can accelerate recovering from injuries. I also made adjustments about how Downtime takes place to let character who have suffered from wounds do something during their time off to RP; they may not want to engage in physical activity if they want to recover quickly, but that should not stop them from reading books, meeting people, or conducting business meetings.
This mechanic isn’t fun
It’s true that having a scaling penalty to rolls impacts a player’s ability to enjoy a game. It’s also true that players suffering no consequences for repeatedly dropping to 0 HP makes no sense, and there are builds such as the Oraladin that can recover 900+ points of damage a day before level 10 that make the consequences of low HP almost meaningless. I want players to conduct themselves smartly during combat, and I think HP by itself is too poor of an abstraction by itself to make that possible considering how easy it is to recover damage in Pathfinder. Wounds add grit to the game that I would argue is badly needed. Ideally, a good Wounds system creates a story thread throughout a dungeon of the characters truly getting worn down by their adventures, it encourages them to take time from fighting and get to know the world around them, and it discourages players from being stupid by introducing consequences for continual poor planning. My hope is that my additions to James’ existing system will make all of that possible.
Why Use Armor as Damage Resistance
Pathfinder’s AC mechanic works well enough on its own; the abstraction makes enough sense for avoiding damage, most classes in Pathfinder are balanced around it, and it’s a quick and easy way of determining whether a target gets damage. That said, I want to reframe how damage works in my campaign with an Armor as Damage Resistance mechanic for a couple of reasons.
The first reason is purely selfish: I’ve been working on my own table top game for a while now, and using armor to reduce, rather than avoid, damage is one of the central combat mechanics I’ve been playing with. Paizo made their own system with some good ideas I’m borrowing/stealing, but the tables for converting Armor and Natural Armor to Damage Reduction are absurdly complicated, reduce everything to DR/Magic (which is next to useless in Pathfinder), and have stupid bypass mechanics based on creature size. My hope is that this alternative is more simple, plays to more realistic combat scenarios, and is significantly easier to code into Maptool (this last one is confirmed true; I have come up with coding for attack macros that takes DR into account when calculating damage that works perfectly with what I have come up with).
The second reason is to add some variety to Martials and change how some fighter-type classes play. Getting a high AC in Pathfinder is not hard; I’ve played an Investigator that could easily get into the high 20s to low 30s by level 6 without wearing heavy armor. By changing how different modifiers play off each other, I want to make playing a dodge-tank feel completely different from playing an armored-tank. I also wanted to add some utility to armor that just doesn’t exist in normal Pathfinder (wearing Heavy Armor is actually one of the worst methods of getting a high AC in the game compared to stacking buff spells) and provide some benefit to special materials besides Mithril. If all goes well, players in heavy armor will be sturdier, and combat will be less dependent on lucky rolls at lower levels and instead rely on smart tactics. Target numbers for hitting an opponent will be lower overall, but at least now there’s some applicable defense stopping a character from being one-shotted by a lucky critical.
On of the changes Paizo is making in their transition from Pathfinder to their Starfinder game is a change in how Full Attacking works. In normal Pathfinder, characters get iterative attacks depending on their Base Attack Bonus; it makes sense for the AC system, but the idea of swinging a greatsword 5+ a round at high levels gets stupid fast, and it slows down later-game play. By contrast, Full Attacking is an action any character in Starfinder can take; it requires a Full Round action, and the character gets 2 attacks at a -4 penalty to hit. I think this is much more simple, it’s more balanced against the Armor Class as Damage Reduction mechanic, and it will be much faster to go through attack sequences at higher levels.