Pathfinder RPG: Too crunchy?

Pathfinder headache: too crunchy

Pathfinder RPG: too "crunchy" for its own good?

The recent release of the Pathfinder Beginner Box is having another effect within the Pathfinder community: voices have risen calling for simplifying the Pathfinder system.

Pathfinder RPG’s complexity has been a long-running complaint about 3.x rules (which includes D&D 3.0 and 3.5 and Pathfinder). Sure, the system is flexible and robust and allows for an infinite amount of options for characters and it does a decent job at simulating “reality” (given of course that RPGs deal with fantasy).

But as the characters and monsters they encounter grow more powerful at high levels and have an ever-growing variety of powers and options, the game system’s engine starts to rattle. (I myself don’t speak from personal experience, but base this on discussions in the forums.) Some abilities break the game’s balance. The amount of calculating increases: for example, fighter-based classes (and later other classes) get extra attacks per rounds. Combine this with dual-weapon wielding and melee starts to get complicated pretty quickly. Monsters start to get spell immunity, and NPCs have more and more magic items that affect all their other statistics, making creating a high-level NPC time-consuming and complicated.

This massive statblock for the (spoiler after the link) climactic encounter in the Age of Worms adventure path singlehandedly made me start to doubt whether this system is not all that it’s cracked up to be. Oy vey.

Currently my preferred system is Pathfinder RPG, but I do not know (yet) how unmanageable it becomes for a GM in those higher levels. Heck, I’ve only guided my band of heroes to the glories of Level 3. But I reserve judgment. I like to think of myself as highly efficient, organized, and capable, but, well… I don’t know if I should work so hard to play a game.

In the meantime, the Beginner Box’s debut is spurring interesting discussions among fans about how to reorganize and re-present the core rules of Pathfinder (not change the rules themselves) in a revision of the Core Rulebook, and about coming up with a simplified ruleset that builds on the Beginner Box’s foundations.

What do others think about the complexity of high-level play in D&D 3.x and Pathfinder? Do you like it the way it is? As for me, I really would like to see it toned down in Pathfinder’s next iteration — whenever that may be, probably several years from now. But is that even possible without sacrificing or losing some of Pathfinder’s core strengths?


About ronaldsf

Grandmaster of the Pathfinders' Guild at Martin Luther King Middle School.
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14 Responses to Pathfinder RPG: Too crunchy?

  1. Ha, ha! I started laughing looking at those stats! +34 to a saving throw? That’s when I quit playing and roll up some weakling 1st level characters to start over. I’m sorry, but when the bonus is higher than the maximum roll on the d20 it’s just too much for me.

    I’ve always been fond of low level adventures although mid-level can also be great fun. In AD&D 2nd edition we usually retired characters around level 10-12 because they just became too powerful and it wasn’t as fun as the struggle through the lower levels. We would crave a good foray into a standard level 1 cave of goblins and thus would toss the worn out character sheets and break out the new crisp character sheets where the HP area wasn’t worn out by erasers.

    To each their own of course, but that monster you linked to just seems comical to me.

    • ronaldsf says:

      Yeah, as you may know from my previous posts I have a longing for gritty low-level play as well.

      Also, I honestly wouldn’t know how to GM a game where the PCs can teleport from one end of a dungeon to the next and across continents, can fly over mountains, etc. And I don’t know how I could keep such a game interesting.

  2. Ed Green says:

    My experience has been that PF is okay for low-level play, but once you start to get high level characters the complexity escalates quickly. It usually goes something like this: one player says “I’m using this feat which does X”, then someone else at the table will say “Are you sure? I thought that feat did Y” Then everything comes to a screeching halt while the rules are consulted. With 5-6 players, a single combat round can take a long time to resolve, even without stopping for rules checks. It gets really frustrating sometimes.

    I’ve brought up trying some of the OSR retroclones and such, but the group seems firmly wedded to PF and similarly complex systems. Maybe I can get them to give the BB a shot.

    • ronaldsf says:

      Wow, I guess having a very sharp GM who has memorized a lot of the feats and other rules helps then, but those are hard to come by.

      I assume you like how the BB introduces the game? Still, it doesn’t quite solve things at higher levels. Perhaps if you did an “E5” or “E6” variation and limited yourself to the feats in the BB you’d have a fairly simple, gritty fantasy RPG.

      • Ed Green says:

        Even having a sharp DM doesn’t always help…we still usually end up looking up to rules to confirm what the expert tells us, lol.

        An E5 or E6 style game is exactly what I was thinking of; maybe E7, but that would mean adding 4th level spells and some of them can get a little…”problematic.” Over time I’d gradually add more classes, equipment, feats and spells, but that stuff could be expanded gradually.

  3. bart says:

    Sorry for going off on an unrelated tangent, but I’ve been wondering how long it has taken you to get to Level 3. Do you have an hours estimation? Also, what experience track are you using. Thanks greatly. Awesome blog.

    • ronaldsf says:


      I was using the Medium XP track and ran Crypt of the Everflame, which took about 4-5 sessions with an average of 3 hours each, so maybe 14 hours and they were approaching Level 3.

      For the 2nd module, Masks of the Living God, I threw some random encounters at them to get them up to 3rd level and then did a lot of roleplaying after that, which was about 2 sessions. After the 1st session, they hit Level 3.

      A little fast for my tastes. But it doesn’t matter anymore because I’ve been separated from them. šŸ˜¦

      I think when we next reunite, it will be to start a Paizo Adventure Path from the beginning.

  4. Jay says:

    I like PF but the feats were too much for me so we went back to BECM. THe archetypes also began to drive us crazy along with the traits. We did like the revised skill system better than 3.x
    But everything being an opposed roll annoyed us too. And every monster have amazing perception and acrobatics. Determining surprise was so much easier in pre 3E games.

    • ronaldsf says:

      If you want to scale back from Pathfinder you might want to check out Castles & Crusades — they have free quick-start rules to try out.

      I am also a bit perplexed by the perception rules. First of all, it seems to be used so much more often than the other skills and seems like a no-brainer to choose. Second, the Pathfinder Core Rulebook doesn’t give ANY advice (let alone an illustrative example, which the CRB has virtually none of for its rules) on how to determine surprise at the beginning of an encounter.

      So I’m not sure how to do it: the monsters using Perception against a party of adventurers approaching a dungeon door would either make a (1) DC 10 check to detect “creatures walking”, or a (2) DC equal to the Stealth checks of the adventurers. Add to this, +5 DC for the closed door and +1 for every 10 feet of distance. And if I use Stealth checks, I’ll assume they Take 10? Unless they attempt to be stealthy, which means they have a 50-50 chance of being NOISIER than if they were NOT trying to be stealthy? And if you consider that a group of four adventurers is simply MORE likely to have a low-end roll, it would seem that sneaking actually hurts the party! Argh.

      Meanwhile, I assume that the monsters behind the door all Take 10 on their Perception checks.

      But that all goes only in ONE direction. The adventurers need to make Perception checks to see whether they hear anything behind the door! Am I overcomplicating it, or is it much simpler but the CRB failed at explaining it to me?

  5. I am a (nearly) old GM and player who played all editions.

    The issue with PF being complex is still the same one as 3.X. That is, the more you go up, the more the plethora of feats, builds, etc. because a nightmare, and indeed, High-Lvl / Epic play is a mess for that reason.
    Making a beginner box won’t change that, since it’s about beginners / low – level. There isn’t much to be done, you can’t have this huge clump of info / feats / etc. on one hand, and simplicity on the other about managing a campaign and characters.

    One thing is “challenging epic characters”, another entirely is “managing epic character sheets / encounters”. The former can be done, and it’s no surprise I’m still managing with another DM to do this in 2ed, with a 25+ year ongoing campaign.
    It’s not a question of “options”. 2ed (or any other system, I’m speaking in general) can have a ton of options. It’s how they’re implemented into the game and how they clog the whole system.
    People coming from 3.X / PF come to my table and aren’t restricted in terms of options, even in epic play. They feel the same, if not actually with even more freedom / options.

    PF was a good edition, but it was (alas) clear from the start it wouldn’t solve 3.X issues at high level play. It could solve *some*, but the base mechanics and policy of the edition is still the same. šŸ™‚

    • ronaldsf says:

      Yes, 3.x/Pathfinder has a lot of moving parts that make on-the-fly calculations difficult to implement at high levels. For example, a simple “morale” bonus to a PC’s attacks and damage needs one to recall immediately any other potential morale bonuses so that they don’t stack with the new morale bonus. All in an apparent effort to prevent magical effects from the breaking the game by becoming too powerful — but at the same time creating a new problem.

      The new 5th Edition of D&D seems to take a big step toward reducing the complexity of high-level play. But at the cost of what? To me, that’s not clear.

      The upcoming Pathfinder Unchained book (due for 2015) abandons the concept the backward-compatibility with 3rd Edition D&D. I, for one, very much look forward to seeing Paizo’s take on the problem of 3.x/Pathfinder high level play.

  6. Don Gillies says:

    I played DnD in the late 1970’s (1.0, I guess). Back then, you rolled 3 dice six times, rolled for your hit points, maybe bought some items, and you were on your way !! It took 15 mins to get a character set up back in those days. All the fun was in the dungeonmaster’s creativity.

    I tried to play Pathfinder with my sons tonight. After 1 hour of frustration trying to calculate all of our abilities, or bonuses, our miscellaneous bonuses added to our race bonuses added to our random bonuses added to our abilities bonuses, my kids were leaving the table and going back to their smart phones.

    I told them, “Look, Dad will finish this part of your character. Why don’t we go to the store and start buying stuff?”

    Pathfinder was almost a FAIL tonight. My kids love magic cards and dungeon games and league of legends. If the melee system in this game is gonna be this complicated, it will be a FAIL. Melee was always about 1/2 the fun in DnD. The maps, treasures, puzzles, and challenges were the other half, and I’m worried that this game is way to heavy and complicated in the parts that DONT MATTER AT ALL.

    • ronaldsf says:

      Yeah, sounds like a bad experience. At least for low levels, Pathfinder’s complexity is front-loaded in putting a lot of calculation in character creation/advancement. Perhaps it would have been better to familiarize yourself first with the rules, or to use the Beginner Box pregens to jump into play so that the numbers have a context to keep their interest.

  7. Tailgrimm says:

    This is why you play 5th Edition. Simple and beautiful.

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