Pathfinder Society – A Long, Hard Look

We’re now 14 modules into Paizo’s organised play campaign, Pathfinder Society. I think this is as good a moment as any to take a long, hard look at where the campaign is now, where we’re coming from, where we’re headed, and what must be done so we get there instead of, say, Turku, Albuquerque, or the fourth circle of Hell.

There will be a lot of comparison with Living Greyhawk, since that’s what I’m familiar with and that’s where it was done best.

The Modules

At the heart of an organised play campaign are the modules. While  the campaign rules offer the framework that  holds up the campaign, the adventures are the reason it all exists in the first place. I shall address these first.

Of the 14 modules that have come out thus far, I’ve read and either played or run 13 (with the exception of #14 The Many Fortunes of Grandmaster Torch). The quality has been all over the board. Some, like #4 Frozen Fingers of Midnight, #5 Mists of Mwangi and #8 Slave Pits of Absalom are very good indeed, but then there are modules like #12 Stay of Execution, which was two hours too short, and #10 Blood at Dralkard Manor, which apparently suffered in editing and turned into a bit of a party killer.

None of the modules are at the level of Living Greyhawk’s best.

The problems with the modules come in many shapes. Stay of Execution is too short. Blood at Dralkard Manor is too lethal and has rewards that do not actually appear on the scenario chronicle. Eye of the Crocodile King has a map that makes no sense for what it’s trying to depict. There are also persistent faulty stat blocks. The usual stuff – miscalculated hit points are the most common, I think.

I think the root of the problem here is the word count limit. All of the above modules have great potential that could be realised if it only had been possible to flesh them out more. In short, they are too short. Stats take up a lot of space, especially considering you may need to stat up the same characters for several level tiers.  Also, most of the modules we’ve played were over far quicker than the four hours they should fit into. Three hours is the norm, with Stay of Execution clocking in at two hours. We tend to play full tables of six people, and we are fond of our off-topic. Really, the modules could do with an additional encounter or two.

I would also note that there’s been a certain lack of continuity, but that, we are told, will change.

A point of note in comparison to Living Greyhawk: LG was much more free in handing out favours and other interesting entries in their adventure records. I think they are much more interesting than +2 longswords, and would like to see more such things in Pathfinder Society. I feel they bring depth to the setting and the adventures (as long as we’re also given later opportunities to actually use those entries), which makes it easier to really make an investment in the campaign.

It’d also be nice if there were actual rewards for completing the adventure objectives themselves. As it stands, the characters get rewards for accomplishing faction missions, but doing what they were sent there for is not profitable. Since the Society doesn’t pay its members, this would be a good place to put favours and such.

And please, give us wands of cure light wounds! We’re getting murdered in here!

The Campaign Rules

Changing the rules of the core game in some ways is a necessity of  the format. There are some things that simply do not work or are too much work to make function properly in a centrally-administered global campaign. The rules document, I feel, should also function as an introduction to the campaign without needing to purchase the setting book. The PFS campaign guide still reads a bit like a raw draft. It’s missing several things I consider rather important.

I am ambivalent about the levelling speed of the campaign. For those who do not know, the campaign scraps the normal XP system (and as a result, all Item Creation feats). Instead, in every module you play and survive, you gain 1XP. You level every three XP.  This makes for very fast advancement. The level cap, I think, is at level 12. However, this isn’t spelled out anywhere in the campaign guide, which it really should.

Other changes and additions I think the campaign needs:

The subskills of Knowledge (local) need to be listed. I prefer the Living Greyhawk system, where different regions were lumped together into only six different subskills of Knowledge (local). There was a point to taking the skill.

Clear, concise rules concerning animal companions, familiars and purchased animals in the campaign. To my understanding, these will be in the next revision.

One would also hope that the exception of guns from the list of allowed Pathfinder Campaign Setting gear be added. It’s another thing that a ruling has been given on in the forums.

Finally, I wish they’d make a definitive ruling on what to do when a module and an official sourcebook have contradictory information, such as in the case of #2 The Hydra’s Fang Incident and Guide to Absalom. It’s not usually a big deal, but it is possible a situation will arise in the future when it matters.

I think that in general terms, it’s a good idea to take a look at how Living Greyhawk did things in the last few years. They had seven rules revisions, and each one was mostly an improvement. (The campaign cards were unnecessary doping, though, and the inclusion of kobolds was a short-sighted and ill-advised move.)

The People

This is the one area where PFS is doing far better than Living Greyhawk. The campaign staff and writers hang out on the forums, are active in conversations, and are nice people. Also, the Paizo forums’ discussion culture is healthier than on the WotC community, that D&D-playing lovechild of SomethingAwful and the RNC.

Paizo’s guys also react to complaints and have issued updated modules very swiftly. With the RPGA, I don’t recall seeing any module receive errata or be updated after release, despite being, for example, completely unintelligible.

I have no real complaints  here.

In Conclusion

It’s a promising campaign, but not quite there yet. There’s steady improvement, and I have trust in the writers. They are open to feedback, which is important.

The major issue, with me, is the module length. They start and then they’re over. They need more flesh to their bones. I don’t think there’s much cause to be so wary of the four-hour time limit. A better option would be to write a longer adventure and include advice about where it can be safely shortened if it seems to run long.

I will revisit the topic next summer, when the rules change rolls around and the campaign goes Pathfinder, and see where we’ve come.

5 thoughts on “Pathfinder Society – A Long, Hard Look

  1. Depends a bit on the situation. I can’t think of any limits in Living Greyhawk or Pathfinder Society that couldn’t be found in any home game. The adventure’s circumstances, how much the DM is willing to accommodate and what the players are capable of thinking up. Personally, I always find it rewarding to think outside the box, and like to encourage it in players. It always results in the coolest stuff.

    We’ve never gone back to town to pick up more flammable chemicals, but it has happened that an unconscious PC was dragged to a temple “outside the module” to be healed up, and one combat was once resolved in a round by a rather nasty ambush involving a trap improvised from lamp oil and alchemist’s fire.

    I haven’t kept up on what sort of stuff happens in Living Forgotten Realms since they unveiled the horror that is the campaign rules, so I don’t know how they regard using imagination, but I could make several unkind inferences from the material that I am familiar with.

  2. Yeah, I think a lot of it is in the attitude of your DM. Some felt strongly like they needed to “commoditize” tables of a scenario, where one should be played out very much like another. I always freeballed it; I enjoyed having different tables come out very differently (staves off boredom at the very least). This means “make rulings like it’s a home campaign.” I remember one session where one PC got killed in a bad combat (past -10), and another character (who had been RPing hitting on that character) then prayed for a miracle – I said “roll a 20” and sure enough, a 20 came up, so I brought that PC right back to life. There is, sadly, a contingent who would say I was “wrong” to do that in a con game.

    I was a Living Greyhawk Triad so ran my share of LG. Haven’t done Pathfinder Society yet as I don’t do cons much any more, but the rules look OK. The format restrictions did bother me with LG as well – only X encounters of CRs equalling Y; it was difficult to really write them the way you wanted.

    4e in general has the real tendency to become a static rule-driven experience so I would imagine LFR would be at risk for that.

  3. Very interesting analysis. I’ll make sure our Events Manager, Josh Frost, has a look.

    Thanks for taking the time to think about and post about the campaign!

    –Erik Mona
    Paizo Publishing, LLC

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