Saturday, 4 May 2013

A cracking Pathfinder session!

A major battle was fought in a strange temple...
Last night we probably had one of our best sessions of the current Pathfinder campaign, Carrion Crown, which we're playing through, and here's why. There were two combat encounters plus a bit of role playing. Nothing special there, you may think. Our characters are on the trail of two mysterious riders who are seeking to trade occult items for the ingredients of a powerful spell, designed to bring back a terrible lich lord. We've stumbled into a seaside village that also seems to be the centre of worship of a Dagon cult. We've already been through ghosts, constructs, werewolves, evil priests and all manner of undead to get here. Now it looks like we've stumbled on an evil seaside cult.

What made the game session good is that we faced one of the more challenging combat encounters of the campaign so far and this was largely down to innovation by Ben, the GM, as he seeks to counter the growing power of a 9th level party of characters. Rather than simply buffing the bad guys, he chose to unleash a number of different encounters at the party simultaneously. We reaped the benefit of masses of XP when we won, but the battles have tested us more severely than the previous ones.

Two of the problems we've been encountering with Pathfinder have been as follows:

  1. Once a party gets past 9th level, they become much harder to cope with. Simply put, the power at the disposal of a 10th level party makes them sufficiently unique that unforeseen solutions can be found to get around many of the challenges posed by the published scenarios from Paizo. No adventure can be written to cope with the powers every party has at its fingertips. Playing a 9th level cleric with access to 5th level spells, I can see the step up in the power level from 8th to 9th level is already significant.
  2. The writers of Pathfinder adventures that we have played to date have tended to simply increase the threat levels by pitching bigger monsters at the party. This does not work when a party is able to focus all its attacks on one target - for every attack a big critter like a hydra or monstrous troll can make, a high powered party is making dozens. There can only be one outcome in these situations.
Our second battle last night featured an initial encounter with evil clerics which was successively reinforced by other clerics, a chuul and an evil priest all entering the battle. This caused some real problems for our party, including having a command spell and an ice storm laid on us. Silence spells also made things more difficult and we needed to start thinking very tactically. But this did feel realistic - the clerics in the evil temple are not going to sit twiddling their thumbs while there is obviously a fight of some kind going on next door, even with silence spells in use on parts of the battlefield; it is entirely natural for them to tool up and come to investigate.

Such an approach is not a conventional one for a dungeon bash - back in the day, when I regularly ran Basic / Red box games, we used to take a room-by-room approach. Many encounters dutifully stayed put, waiting for the adventurers to turn up and slaughter them. Obviously, there are some encounters that will always do this, preferring to lie in wait, but intelligent monsters / NPCs will regard the dungeon as a whole, and the concentration of power against intruders is natural. Where I have used this more reactive approach as a GM, for example in the Keep on the Borderlands, which had detailed notes on how each tribe of monsters would react to intruders, it has even managed to drive parties out of dungeons. It forces players to think more carefully, rather than kicking the door down and marching in.
Chuul - one of last night's encounters.

There is something of 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons here, dare I say it. That game relies on fewer encounters, but makes them more complex and extended in nature, effectively turning the game into a chain of skirmish battles connected by a common narrative theme. The adventures are resolved in fewer encounters, which makes some sense, as we don't have the time these days for massive, sprawling, clear 'em out adventures. Playing Pathfinder, we usually only have time for 2-3 combat encounters per session. Treating every room in a dungeon in isolation would make each adventure much longer as the party scoured dungeons / places of interest in search of clues / adventure goals.

So, a welcome change of pace, with a bigger combat encounter which saw enemies coming at the party from different directions, and in sufficient numbers to protect key spell casters. Despite being 9th level and heavily tooled up, our party was tested. There was no single target we could focus on until right near the end, where a cloudkill spell forced their evil priest and leader into attacking our tank of a paladin, to his immediate demise.


  1. This is a good summary of last night's -- excellent -- game and the wekanesses of Pathfinder's published materials. I was worried that when the cloudkill was cast, the high priest was going to back through the door through which he arrived, but for whatever reason he decided not to; aside from that Ben was on top form in making the battle challenging.

  2. I could never have run last night's session without the steady build up of running lower level pf. It gets tactically more challenging to run it. Esp with multiple NPC spellcasters!! Plus, knowing how deadly you lot are, I knew I had to throw the whole temple complex at you in waves.... Glad you liked it. A bit different to call of Cthulhu though ;)

    I think you will steamroller through the books now. Two, maybe three sessions max on this Arc. Thus we can start book five by the end of May. Book six by the end of June!! Can we finish before my wedding on 27th July? And before Stuart goes on holiday in the Adriatic for a month!?

    Glad you liked it. Expect more madness a week Sunday :-)

  3. Yes, the cloudkill did give the priest an ideal opportunity to simply slip, cackling, away. Luckily he obviously felt he could take down Eradil single-handed.