JP On Gaming

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Tweaking Pathfinder: What 4e got right... Almost

“You enter the room, bladed wheels spin at eye and shin level throughout the room and the floor moves up and down 5 to 6 inches as though on a wave. At the end of the hall, you see the villain disappear as the opposite door begins to close with the grinding of stone on stone.”

Then your rogue says “I take ten” and obliterates the DC and the group goes on. The encounter sucks. No one remembers it, other than the GM who spent 5h coming up with it. OR the party remembers how they saw you cry in frustration. They remember that they make their GM cry.


Now that we have established that players are jerk, we can proceed.

Have we become that lazy that we remiss all thought and idea of defeating a trap to “we don’t have a rogue” or “I have trapfinding”? I definitely include myself in that group because I have fostered that stereotype, both as a writer and a player/GM.

I make no secret that I really like the idea of skill challenges, perhaps the one thing I will take from 4e into other games. I like the fact that players have to think with things other than combat and a few spells. Pretty much like chases (both as presented by Paizo in the GameMastery Guide and the revised version I posted on this blog).

I am currently working on a new adventure for Legacies and I have come to a place where I would like to create an encounter similar to a skill challenge. Something the players have to overcome that should not end with a single dice roll.

In the dying days of 3.5, we were presented with something similar, but I never thought it was particularly well-thought out. It was clearly a precursor to the better 4e version. Still the idea of an encounter-as-a-challenge has always intrigued me and for the longest time, I have been thinking about a way to put together a simple set of rules to use with Pathfinder/3.X. Clearly a first step towards 4e's skill challenges.

This morning inspiration struck me - smack-dab in the middle of a meeting. What if a system could be devised where the encounter had a number of "points" the PCs have to do in order to complete the challenge?

Like in 4e, there must also be penalties for failing, something that endeared me to the original system. I am a strong proponent of the system where the whole party had to do something rather than watch the guy with the good skill do his thing. Standing around and doing nothing should not be what anyone in these situations do. I can imagine these challenges to have an environmental element, something that cannot easily be compelled or controlled.

Like in my previous breakdown of the chase, a good description of what his happening is crucial to allow the PCs to be creative and evolve. Not just to make the encounter exciting, but also to make them know and understand the difficulties and plant the seeds of idea of how they can resolve or help the challenge. Nothing is worse than an endless stream of dice rolling, taking 1d6 damage, and then more dice rolling. I get angry just thinking about such things.

Also, unlike chases, at higher level especially, they may have magical support – through spell or item – that allows them to bypass your trap. Personally, I believe that traps work best at lower level. To make them work are higher level requires too much nerfing (no teleport, no summoning, no this, no that, no dog, no ninjas, no nothing) that the traps becomes either ridiculous, meaningless, or they fall in the category of “typical traps”.

A willingness to allow the PCs to use their skills in unconventional ways will also go a long way to encourage players to be creative. That is true of everywhere in the game, not just here. The GM’s role is to make the world come to life. It is not (just) to slay and beat up the players.

Similar to my chase rules, the DC must represent and challenge the party. Therein lies the difficulty of balancing everything...

More on this topic tomorrow!



  1. There's something like this from 4th Dimension Games with their Skill Encounters series of products.

    1. Yes... And I was going to go over that. I think 4th D's stuff is a great step and something I will be leveraging a lot. I like their format, but I think it might be a little too focused and limited.
      I will be posting a few examples in the coming days. But definitely look for something that definitely will mesh with 4thD's stuff.