A Grandmaster’s Guide to Good Guilding #2: Why I prefer Pathfinder RPG for teaching RPGs to kids

Yet another article on my musings while being the adult “Grandmaster” of a successful middle-school Pathfinder RPG club (now 18 students strong!) that the kids and I affectionately call “The Guild.” These posts likely will interest others who are introducing tabletop RPGs to young people. Read, comment, and enjoy!

(Please note that I am only comparing Pathfinder RPG to Basic D&D for teaching RPGs to kids, and have not spent much time with other RPG systems out there.)

Is Pathfinder RPG too complicated for kids?

Too many rules!?

That is a question asked over at the Paizo forums, where a parent who had played tabletop RPGs in the early 1980s had disliked the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D) rules because it had many more rules than Basic D&D, which this parent felt got in the way of creativity and roleplaying. This parent wondered whether it made sense to introduce his or her kids to RPGs via the Pathfinder Beginner Box (for which I give a positive review here). After all, didn’t the Pathfinder Beginner Box eventually lead to the full Pathfinder RPG, which traced its lineage back to Advanced D&D and not Basic AD&D?

I thought that my own experience using the Pathfinder Beginner Box for my middle-school kids would be useful in answering this question.

Based on my experience, I have found the Pathfinder Beginner Box not to be too complicated and that it is better for getting young people (at least those between maybe 8 and 15 years old) introduced to RPGs, at least compared to Basic D&D. And I have been able to successfully transition the kids to full Pathfinder RPG.

Don’t take everything I say on faith — you can see the Pathfinder Beginner rules on this website established by a fan.

But first, let me address some of the concerns about the Pathfinder RPG’s complexity.

First, the Pathfinder RPG’s Pathfinder Beginner Box is actually far more user-friendly to kids than Basic D&D was: it is visually attractive and it teaches its rules very effectively.

And it also simplifies the Pathfinder RPG’s rules, NOT by changing those rules per se, but by excluding a number of Pathfinder’s subsystems and stripping the system down to its core mechanics of attack rolls, saving throws, and skill checks. One can then transition to the Core Rules, or just borrow bits and pieces from the Core Rules and use them in a “Beginner Box game,” like adding enhancements to a car, or attachments to a vacuum cleaner.

At the same time, the Beginner Box does lead kids to try out the full Pathfinder Core Rulebook, which I do feel can be too complicated. And the Pathfinder RPG (its “Beginner Box” iteration included) does operate on some basic assumptions that, if not handled well, can lead to RULES thatactivelyget in the way of using one’s imagination and problem-solving that I feel are the chief advantages of tabletop RPGs for kids compared to computer and videogame RPGs.

However, let me first address the question of Pathfinder RPG being “complicated”…

Pathfinder RPG actually simplifies the basic mechanics of the game compared to Basic D&D.

The most common action in a tabletop RPG is the attack roll. But in Basic D&D, in order to determine whether a monster hits a player character (PC), you had to reference a chart, find the row for the monster’s number of Hit Dice, and cross-reference it with the defender’s Armor Class (AC). AD&D made this more needlessly cumbersome by introducing Armor Class Adjustments, with which the attacker took a bonus or penalty to its attack roll depending on the type of armor (which was different from Armor Class!) the defender was wearing.

In Pathfinder, it simply is this formula:

Roll a 20-sided die (d20) and add your Attack Bonus. If it is equal to or greater than the defender’s AC, you hit.

The same applies for Saving Throws: in Pathfinder, you do essentially the same thing: roll a d20, add a bonus, and compare it to the Difficulty Class (DC) of the threat. Basic D&D and AD&D had charts for these, which furthermore had rather arbitrary categories for attacks (i.e., if a death spell is cast out of a necromancer’s wand, would you save versus Death, versus a Wand, or versus a Spell?). From 3rd Edition D&D forward (which includes Pathfinder RPG), the saving throw categories are more neatly defined and easier to apply: physical resistance (Fortitude), physical avoidance (Reflex), or mental resistance (Will).

Similarly, while it is true that Pathfinder has more rules for more situations than Basic D&D did, Pathfinder does this in a manner that is much simpler to adjudicate at the table than AD&D did. AD&D had subsystems for many different situations which had little consistency with each other. For example, AD&D created rules for unarmed combat that  involved looking up a chart and adding a variety of factors (one’s dexterity, whether a defender is slowed, the defender’s armor type, whether one has a helmet, etc., etc., etc., etc.). In contrast, Pathfinder (I’m speaking here about the full, core rules only) has one calculate one’s “Combat Maneuver Bonus” (CMB) and one’s “Combat Maneuver Defense” (CMD) upon character creation. Every time a combat maneuver comes up like tripping or grappling, it is resolved like any other attack roll: roll a d20, add the bonus and compare it to the defense. Nearly every situation boils down referring to one of the stats on one’s character sheet. Sure, this could be a bit illogical sometimes (i.e., roll a Reflex saving throw to see if your weapon sticks to a sticky monster), but it is much easier to deal with than flipping pages to find a specialized chart in the book.

Where Pathfinder CAN BE a lot more complicated is in creating characters and leveling-up characters.

The Beginner Box character sheet.

The Beginner Box character sheet.

In Pathfinder, there is some math and rules-referencing involved in calculating your bonuses, but all this results in a character sheet that works with the same “d20 + bonus vs. difficulty” mechanic described above. And so you will only be referencing many of these rules when you are creating your character, or advancing your character upon leveling-up.

However, there is a LOT of options for creating characters in Pathfinder that might intimidate new players. In the Pathfinder Core Rulebook, there are 11 classes, 7 races, 35 skills, and over 170 feats to choose from. (And this does not include its many spells.) Many classes have their own crucial choices to make early on: Rangers have a fighting style; Druids have an animal companion, Sorcerers, Clerics, and Wizards have their bloodlines, domains, and spell schools respectively. The full list of feats  available in Pathfinder’s core rulebook line is, well, rather obscene.

However, if kids are exposed first to the Pathfinder Beginner Box, they only need to look over its 4 classes and 3 races and its reduced lists of feats. They might need some guidance (e.g., “What kind of character do you want to be? Do you want to cast spells? Since you’re a fighter, do you want to be good with big two-handed weapons, or good with shields and be harder to hit?”, etc., etc.), but overall I have found that not many will be intimidated. The Beginner Box also includes “class kits” with suggestions for feats, skills, and equipment for each class, making it easier to “jump in” even further. (A kid CAN jump straight into the Core Rulebook, but only if he or she is particularly advanced or has extensive guidance.)

In my middle-school classroom where I am using the full Pathfinder rules, when a new student walks in, my priority is to get them to play as soon as possible and not be buried by options. I usually assign a more-experienced student to guide them through character creation, and they jump into a game in about 30 to 45 minutes. He or she is then free to switch out their character for another one after they’ve gotten more of a feel for the game, seen the other kinds of classes students have, and glanced the fuller list of options themselves.

For some kids, tabletop RPGs are great educational tools because they reward creativity and encourage a “theater of the mind.” Basic D&D requires this. Pathfinder RPG introduces SKILL RULES, which can get in the way of the “theater of the mind” if a GM isn’t careful.

Character sheet from Swords & Wizardry, a popular Basic D&D "retroclone"

Character sheet from Swords & Wizardry, a popular Basic D&D “retroclone”

In comparison to Basic D&D, Pathfinder has many more rules covering many more possible player actions, which is indicative of modern RPG systems as compared to  “old school” systems.

When D&D first started out, the game was relatively free-form. The rules were just being defined for the first time, leaving everything else up for the players to narrate and for the GM to adjudicate. This had the advantage of giving players the opportunity to think up just about anything: “You want to convince the goblin king that you mean him no harm? Okay, so what do you say?” Or: “You want to talk through how you’re going to find the hidden mechanism of a trap? No problem!” For kids, this can be a good exercise in problem-solving and imagination.

What Pathfinder does is introduce Skills, which are resolved with a “d20 + bonus vs. difficulty” mechanic. At character creation, for every Skill you get a certain bonus that depends upon a certain ability score. If your class is particularly good at this skill, it is a “class skill” and you get a bonus. So, for example, to convince the goblin king, you would have a Diplomacy bonus that is based on your Charisma ability. (Every ability score has a modifier from as low as -4 to as high as +5 at first level, depending on how high it is.) At first level, you can spend up to one “skill rank” (+1) to this. If you are a Rogue, because it is a “class skill” you also add +3 to this bonus. (To determine your Disable Device bonus to disarm that trap, the factors are the same except you begin with your Dexterity bonus instead.)

So you roll a d20. But the downside is that the challenge and fun of figuring out how to talk to the goblin king or disarm a devious mechanical contraption (or a trap based on a riddle) might be bypassed.

But there are advantages to having the Skills system: it doesn’t close off certain activities just because one isn’t a Thief (i.e., a Fighter can try to disable a trap, too), and it provides a concrete, numerical way for certain classes and races to be better at certain things than others, making the players with those characters feel more “special” (because they are!).

Also, a GM does not have to boil everything down to a boring d20 roll. One can also reward creative play by applying a bonus to a player (e.g., “+2 to a Diplomacy check if you say something effective”). The danger of the Basic D&D approach was that some things became either (1) automatic if a player was skillful at this style of play, or (2) the GM had to reduce every non-automatic action to “flipping a coin” or something akin to “roll under your Intelligence ability score” without reference to the character’s other qualities, such as being higher level or of a class suited to that skill. The advantage of the Pathfinder RPG system is that you are given a system that you can tinker with, or eschew entirely.

And, let’s face it: kids love to roll dice! And they LIKE to feel that they are better at something because they have a +7 on their character sheet! And of course, there are those magic items that give you a +5 in a skill! This is part of the sheer, nerdy giddiness that comes with playing a tabletop RPG, and it is not to be disparaged!

“Options bloat” = Super fun!

One of my students literally just posted this question on our website today.

One of my students literally just posted this question on our website today.

So much of the fun of an RPG is having a character who is UNIQUE, a concept that applies not only to creating a character’s personality and backstory, but also to the character’s mechanics. Just as a kid might like to imagine his character as a short halfling who has been underestimated his whole life but is now an extraordinary hero, so that same kid might also like the fact that she is a fighter who can inflict twice as much damage as any other character in the party.

Pathfinder RPG has catered to this by providing many mechanical options, which detractors have called “rules bloat” or “options bloat.” But if my kids were to choose, they invariably would have too many options rather than too few.

In Basic D&D, if the rules are applied as written, what differentiates one Fighter from the next boils down only to Strength, weapon, and Level. At first level, this boils down to how high you roll on your Strength at character creation and what weapon you choose (which is either a 1d8 or 1d10, depending on whether you use a two-handed weapon).

However, much of the complexity of Pathfinder character creation comes in deciding what Feats and Skills you want to have. With Feats, even in the Beginner Box with its pared-down list of options, a Fighter can choose to focus on archery, on melee, on sacrificing accuracy for damage, on having more hit points, on being especially resistant to magical enchantment, on acting first in battle… the list goes on and on. So long as a kid isn’t overwhelmed by the options (see above), this is a very fun process, and results in a character that is more unique mechanically, which for some kids is all that they want. And for all kids, sometimes just looking at the mechanical options by itself might be the seed for a character concept.

Of course, sometimes one needs to push kids into thinking more about their character as having a personality. But, to be honest, some kids just don’t care about their character’s personality! And, if they are to develop an interest in their character’s personality, it won’t be the minimalist nature of the rules system that inspires them to do this.

Lastly, I find that kids’ exposure these days to computer and videogame RPGs and movies and television means that they often come into the game already with more-definite concepts that simply cannot be met under older rules systems. In 1986, when I was nine years old, I read the Basic D&D Red Box and salivating at the descriptions of Magic-Users and Thieves for the first time (sheesh, even the concept of character classes was new to me!). In contrast, I often have a kid joining my class who already has a specific idea of what kind of character they want to be, such as “I want to be a monster who’s a barbarian!” or “I want to be a necromancer!”

Sure, these concepts are not in the Pathfinder Beginner Box, but if I were using the Beginner Box I can graft a few classes and races from the full Pathfinder Core Rulebook and from the Advanced Race Guide, help them with their character sheet, and insert them into a Beginner Box game with few problems. (Also, EDOWar has an excellent set of conversions of the 21 character classes and 4 additional core races from the Pathfinder Core Rulebook, Advanced Player’s Guide, Ultimate Combat and Ultimate Magic on his website.)

Lastly, I have successfully transitioned from Pathfinder’s Beginner Box to Pathfinder core rules in my class.

Some of Pathfinder RPG's classes: paladin, witch, oracle, wizard, sorcerer, fighter, druid, rogue, cleric, ranger, barbarian, cavalier, bard, alchemist, monk

Some of Pathfinder RPG’s classes: paladin, witch, oracle, wizard, sorcerer, fighter, druid, rogue, cleric, ranger, barbarian, cavalier, bard, alchemist, monk

In fact, the kids pushed me into doing this because they wanted access to the greater power of higher levels and to the race options in the Advanced Race Guide. Once I got them to glimpse at the Core Rulebook and Advanced Race Guide, it was all over: “I want to be a fox person!” “I want to change shape!” “I want to be a fire person!”, “I want to have a whirlwind attack!” etc., etc., etc.

(Some older players lament the expansion of RPGs beyond the traditional medieval-England/Tolkienesque forms of fantasy. It is important to note that kids have been exposed to more fantasy tropes, having been exposed to anime and just the sheer greater amount of fantasy in entertainment, and do not have any inherent bias for or against any particular style of fantasy. They simply don’t have the conservative instincts we do, and they are less likely to appreciate the fun that comes with imagining an internally-consistent world versus having an awesome individual character.)

In transitioning to the full rules, the kids’ enthusiasm sometimes exceeded their grasp of the rules needed to support their concepts, but in the end it’s all about having fun.

So I transitioned the class from the Beginner Box to the full rules. For character creation, it boiled down to opening up the full list of classes and races, which they gobbled up without many problems, given the foundation they already had from the Beginner Box. (Kids are often more intelligent and flexible than we give them credit for.)

As for rule mechanics, I have introduced them as they have come up, the main thing being Attacks of Opportunity (AoOs). The main effect this has had on gameplay is that they do not do certain actions (like casting spells) while standing next to an enemy, and they have to be careful not to provoke an AoO while moving past another enemy.

The complexity of Pathfinder mostly comes in higher-level play, which is another topic I will deal with later on…

And I know this: my kids would kill me if I switched them to Basic D&D, because of the fewer options at character creation. They also would not be happy with the “common person” level of power at low levels in Basic D&D (something which I like, actually), and want to feel more heroic from the outset.

Some day…

… I will run a one-shot of Basic D&D with some of the kids. But I’m pretty sure they would not stick with the system for long because of the relative lack of individual options. It would be more for the novelty and historical curiosity, and for those students who want to try a more fatal game for the heck of it, or who would appreciate trying a game in which their characters are more like average people.

But I don’t think that would happen any time soon — my kids are too focused on unlocking Whirlwind Attack or turning invisible at will to even let me try.


Stay tuned and follow my “Grandmaster’s Guide” articles! I will post on whatever inspires me, which will range from general topics (e.g., middle-school students vs. high-school students) to lessons I learned from specific experiences (such as that First Day!). It amuses me, reading my original postings on the Paizo thread that gave birth to this series of articles, that I had a VERY different idea of how the class would play out, from what eventually would evolve out of the unpredictable insanity that would follow.


About ronaldsf

Grandmaster of the Pathfinders' Guild at Martin Luther King Middle School.
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5 Responses to A Grandmaster’s Guide to Good Guilding #2: Why I prefer Pathfinder RPG for teaching RPGs to kids

  1. edowar says:

    Great write up on the merits of PF Beginner Box vs. Basic D&D, especially for kids new to RPGs. As much as I prefer old school D&D (and retro-clones, like Swords & Wizardry) there are things that Pathfinder does much more elegantly, such as multi-classing and condensing grappling into just a couple of stats (CMB/CMD). And the degree of character customization is amazing. Almost tempts me to try my hand at running a Pathfinder core game. Now, if only it didn’t take all night to resolve a single combat.

    As for trying an old school game, you might be surprised. Your students will give up quite a bit of character customization, but they’ll gain a great deal more freedom of action. They’ll also make greater progress through a dungeon/adventure than in a typical Pathfinder game. And if you stick to the spirit of the OSR, there’s nothing that says the PCs can’t be monster barbarians, necromancers or have cheetahs as pets. Some of them may end up liking it more than you think. 🙂


    • ronaldsf says:

      Could you say more on sticking to the spirit of the OSR? I know you just ran a BECMI D&D and would like to know how you might handle some of these requests mechanically.

      • edowar says:

        For old school play in general, I recommend reading the Quick Primer for Old School Gaming by Matt Finch, available here: http://www.scribd.com/doc/14749369/Quick-Primer-for-Old-School-Gaming. It does a much better job describing the old school ‘spirit’ than I could.

        As for characters specifically, you’d have to design each request as a separate class. However, you can take bits-and-pieces from the existing classes to build the new classes. Remember, too, that old school classes don’t have nearly as many options as Pathfinder character classes, so you don’t have to spend too much time detailing the class (unless you want to, of course). Also keep in mind that any monster class you allow will still start relatively weak, like any low-level character. Playing a monster isn’t a short-cut to power.

        Say, for example, one of your players wanted to play a barbarian minotaur. The first step would probably be finding an example of a barbarian class for the D&D variant of your choice. B/X D&D doesn’t actually have a barbarian class, but there are plenty of fan-made versions on the net you could reference. This becomes the basis of the barbarian-minotaur class. Next, look up a minotaur and see what features are listed in their monster description. Off the top of my head, they have horns and they don’t get lost in labyrinths. So, give them a special charge attack with their horns, and give them a 90% chance to find their way through any maze. Minotaurs are also larger than normal characters, so maybe they have to pay 50% more for their armor, as well. Finally, you may want to increase their XP requirement a little, so instead of fighter XP progression they use magic-user XP progression (which is slightly higher). Voila, you’ve got a new character class.

        One thing your players may not like (at first, at least) is race-as-class. Having played Pathfinder first, it probably won’t make sense to them. Ultimately it’ll be up to you whether you allow Elven clerics or Halfling magic-users, but each would be treated as a separate class in B/X/BECMI (alternatively, there are a few clones that separate race and class, so you could use one of those instead).

        There are also a number of clones that use Ascending Armor Class, so you won’t have to mess with charts and tables so much, and some use the 3E/PF Fort/Ref/Will saving throw triad which your players would be familiar with (rather than the 5 saving throws of old school D&D).

        Another nice thing, most of the retro-clones are available for free as PDFs, so you won’t have to spend a lot of money to give them a try.

        And finally, here a few other old school resources for your reference, if you aren’t already aware of them:

        http://campaignwiki.org/planet/ (Old School RPG Planet)
        http://www.odd74.proboards.com/index.cgi (Original D&D Discussion Board)
        http://www.scribd.com/doc/51585827/philotomy (Philotomy’s OD&D Musings)


      • ronaldsf says:

        Thanks for all the resources edowar! I will take a look. I’ve been aware of the retroclones that have ascending AC and they seem to address my concerns here. I have actually been wanting to introduce Microlite20 or Swords & Wizardry eventually, but at the moment I’m not sensing an interest or demand.

        I think that some of the kids might gain interest in trying a less a rules-heavy system over time. At the moment, they like the complexity of characters and I haven’t been a stickler over all the full Pathfinder rules, just bringing up the more important ones as they arise.

        But as things get harder to handle at higher levels, some of them (those who like GMing maybe) might start to get “Pathfinder fatigue.” But I’m not sure if or when that will come up — they seem to be much more willing to barrel ahead without getting all the rules right, and they actually like to get WTF reactions from other students when they whip out a new ability or knowledge of a particular spell that foils their plans.

        If anyone has been fatigued however, it has been me! But such is the burden of teaching lol. And I’ve found that it has been worth it, seeing the huge interest and excitement to play that they have.

      • ronaldsf says:

        That Matt Finch article is interesting! I seem to recall encountering the “Rulings, Not Rules” section elsewhere. I am thinking of introducing this style of play through my own one-shot within the class. It might lead to an interesting article some day 🙂

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