Friday, 12 July 2013

Ruminations on Pathfinder power curve

"I stakes 'em."
Our current Pathfinder campaign - Carrion Crown - has now reached 12th level and we're in the process of trying to complete it before the summer break, although this now looks unlikely. Regular readers of this blog may recall that we abandoned our previous Pathfinder campaign, Kingmaker, when we got to 13th level, partly because the PCs had simply become too powerful for the opposition. Our GM Ben was doubling the size of encounters and maximising the number of hit points for the critters we faced and we were still trashing them in record time.

We have not had the same problems in Carrion Crown, although with 12th level it is fair to say we are becoming beefy enough to take on a room full of vampires and annihilate them in less than 18 seconds of game time. Eat your heart out Buffy.

The issue is one of power curve, and it is something I've debated before on this blog. At 1st-3rd level, the power level and tool set available to a typical Pathfinder party is fairly restricted. Hence, a commercial adventure can be written in such a way as to be fairly certain that unusual short cuts and / or solutions will not occur. At higher levels, adventure writers have to anticipate a vast range of complexity on the part of a party. The battery of spells and magic items and various power ups available to a 12th level party is simply enormous (as the actress said to the vicar).
"I chops 'em."

On top of this, adventurers can also call on a battery of allies with which to flesh out a party. Take ours, for example. Apart from four main PCs - a Dragon Disciple, a Shadow Dancer, a Cleric and a Necromancer, we can now also call on:
  • a Gunslinger (the servant of the Necromancer, acquired via a Leadership feat)
  • another Cleric (again, acquired by a Leadership feat on the part of the Dragon Disciple)
  • a Golem (purchased, I think, by the Necromancer)
  • an intelligent magic mace (an artifact) which commands a battery of additional spells
This has already taken our party to seven regular characters, and the Necromancer, who is also a wealthy aristocrat, can call on minor servants for mundane duties, and transports the party around Ustalav in two sumptuous coaches. With his arrival at 12th level, my cleric is now also considering the Planar Ally spell, which, while expensive, can also bring the aid of 12 HDs of Outsiders if required.

Beyond this, of course, we have all the additional magic items we have been able to purchase. My cleric is wearing over 130,000 gps worth of kit. That's probably enough to buy a small estate in Ustalav.

Take into consideration as well that the party has been deliberately set up as undead fighters and hunters, and it is not surprising that they are merrily carving their way through the local vampire population in short order. Yet again, the power curve appears to be asserting itself.

I have to say, however, that I find high level play more FUN. It is hard to drop straight into a high level game, and it feels better to warm up to it through the lower levels, but we recently took a break to play in a 1st level dungeon bash and the sudden change of gear was hard to assimilate.

"I stares at 'em. Hard."
The focus of this party is less on problem solving and negotiations and more on just laying waste to the enemy. Because of the nature of the campaign, the bulk of the opposition is evil by definition, much of it undead, and the party has two religious fanatics who are being played as such to the hilt, so resort to uncompromising holy violence seems to be within character. Some of our toughest challenges were earlier in the campaign, when we fought constructs and were seeking to save an intelligent flesh golem from unjust death; hordes of undead make the emotional decision a lot easier.

For me, the ideal levels for play in Pathfinder, as a player, are between 5th and 11th. Beyond 11th the game does seem to start to creak a little, and begin to resemble a superhero campaign. But as a player it is still great fun to tap into so much more power. If I were running the game, however, I would probably concentrate on the lower levels, say 1st through to about 6th or 7th and would not go beyond that.

So how do you manage the power creep in Pathfinder? Well, here are just some possible ideas:
  • Make players roll for hit points after 1st level
  • Make it harder to find and buy magic items - the Olde Magic Shoppe syndrome makes it too easy for players to sink cash into improving their arsenals. At higher levels, teleport capability makes it easy for one PC to nip back to a major population centre and buy more magic, so making magic generally scarcer across the campaign world might work. Of course, high level PCs can make their own stuff, but this will take time.
  • Tweak or tailor encounters to hit party weaknesses.
  • Attack party assets - if they're off hunting vampires, who is looking after their coaches? Low level NPCs you say? Not the sort of people who will be able to stand up to vampire subversion, I expect...
Overall, though, I still enjoy playing Pathfinder more now that I have a copy of Hero Lab. It means I need to worry less about the number crunching and can get on with playing the game. Awesome.

1 comment:

  1. With you Stuart on the idea of attacking your base, making you hunt down magic items, etc.... But I am fully aware that we need to keep up a head of steam and finish this thing!

    Kingmaker collapsed without Ric. It was a campaign we played with him. I can see myself finishing it off at the Winter Con if this suits. Once you get used to running PF at high levels it ain't so insane!!

    Next up: book six and the Gallowspire! :-)