Oct 222018

Pathfinder Playtest Analysis II – On Backgrounds and Skills

This series of posts was made possible by the generous contributions of the following folks:

-Jason Nelson

-BJ Hensley

-Chad Middleton

-Randy Price

-Christen Sowards

-Rick Hershey

-Chris Meacham

-Paco Garcia Jaen

-Justin Andrew Mason

-Stephen Rowe

-Jonathan Figliomeni

-Paul Fields

-Lucus Palosaari


Okay, so I’ve taken some time to digest the v.1.4 changes made to skills, but before we take a closer look at those, let us talk about something that has imho not received enough accolades in PF Playtest.


That would be backgrounds. In most games, the upbringing of a given character has next to no impact on the actual capabilities of the character in question. In PF 1, traits were intended to provide an angle of sorts, but ultimately boiled down to just another minor min-maxing tool that no one was really that fond of.


When 5e came around and I saw the massive tables of fluff the respective backgrounds offered, I was pretty stoked at first – and don’t get me wrong: I do enjoy the amount of flavor these deliver, but apart from one minor feature, they don’t tend to influence the playing experience in a meaningful way.


This, obvious, boils down to a tradition of RPGs emphasizing nature over nurture, if you will: Some of you may well recall class-restrictions based on race, for example. As such, I am not surprised by the prevalence of racial choice topping the impact of upbringing etc. in many games.


In PF Playtest, the background is almost as important as the choice of ancestry: One Lore skill, a skill feat and two ability boosts make for a meaningful impact on playing experience as a whole, emphasizing the importance on how a character grew up – and for me, that is a pretty big deal and interesting to see.


Now, granted, as per the writing of this section, the differentiation between these isn’t particularly fine-grained: Acrobat, or Criminal, to name two, are not necessarily as specific as you’d expect them to be. The former nets Steady Balance as a skill feat, when, for trapeze artists, Cat Fall would perhaps make more sense. For criminals, it’s perhaps more pronounced, with plenty of examples of criminals where Expert Smuggler doesn’t necessarily apply to the concept. This was, ultimately, to be expected and opens quite a wide design-space for anyone so inclined: Cat burglars, guild thieves, hitmen, thugs – the possibilities for modifications of the deceptively simple background engine are endless!


This is, at least to me, a big plus, and the aforementioned skill feats tie in neatly with the discussion of the skill system in PF Playtest.


There has been quite a lot of hubbub about skills now being based more on level, and less on specialization choices, with proficiency modifier being tied to level. In the original iteration of PF Playtest, there was but a 5-point variance (-2 to +3), which meant that level, more than everything else, would be a governing factor. This has increased to 7 points as per v1.4., with untrained now providing a nasty -4 instead of the -2. This has a couple of consequences, obviously – for one, let me clearly state that I understand *why* this change was made to the skill-engine of PF 1. Frankly, at one point, PF 1’s skills boil down to “Are you specialized? Well, then you auto-succeed. Are you not specialized? Then you auto-fail.” The variance, also courtesy of the ridiculously inexpensive skill boost items and stacking tricks, was INSANE, and provided a couple of narrative issues that any long-term GM will have wrestled with. At one point, contributing to skill-based tasks, when played by the book, would be nigh-impossible; a fighter, even a brilliant and charismatic one, would always lose the court discussions versus courtiers; a barbarian would have a tough time sneaking into an enemy camp.


In fiction, there are plenty of examples where might and experience do translate to successes: No one would assume that Conan suddenly cross-classed into bard upon taking Aquilonia’s throne, and yet, he brusquely (untrained, mayhaps?) wins discussions and the like. Plenty of characters in fiction can sneak into camps – they won’t be masters, but they have at least a glimmer of a chance at succeeding. PF Playtest, in a way, sports a skill system that allows groups to stick together more, to not have “rogue side-chapter”; “face side-chapter” while the rest of the players twiddles their thumbs. Now, yes, I fully acknowledge that a good GM can offset the aforementioned issues in PF 1, but from a purely system-based point of view, PF Playtest’s skill-engine seems pretty elegant to me.


Speaking of things I really like about the engine as presented: Trained activities/uses of skills. I makes total sense that all adventurers should be able to administer first aid in some capacity; it also makes sense that treating diseases and poisons should be up to the professionals. Oh, and v.1.4’s treat wounds? Frickin’ godsend as far as I’m concerned. As far as design space is concerned, it allows for the grafting of wound systems on top of the engine, and the replenishment of Hit Points sans a cleric? Heck yes. I *think* that, mathematically, it should have a minimum value for Constitution modifier times level or treating character’s level. The latter is not much at low levels, and the default value is pretty punishing on characters that choose to take flaws…which, granted, is not PF Playtest’s default assumption, but it’s popular nonetheless…particularly in grittier games, where non-magical healing is bound to be much more important.


I already mentioned skill feats, and while I generally consider them to be a cool way to make the respective skills matter more, they do tie in with one aspect of the skill system I’m not happy with. As noted above, the sheer point-based variance of skill proficiency isn’t particularly impressive. While being expert, master or legendary may unlock new options as far as skill feats are concerned, these also mean that you have to invest in them. Granted, classes provide plenty of skill feats, and the prerequisites associated with skill feats accomplish the desired breadth regarding options that so many, me included, wanted.


Instead of depth, alternate skill uses and skill unlocks provided what now can be achieved via skill feats, with the proficiency acting as an entry-hurdle. There is nothing per se wrong with that from the perspective of its design goal and whether it’s met or not. From a psychological point of view, I consider it to be a tad bit less elegant than the skill uses unlocked by being trained in a skill.


The issue is simple: You get e.g. master proficiency in a skill. What does it do? +1 increase from expert. Whoopdiedoo. No one is going to be impressed by that. Sure, now you can take the skill feat in question that you really wanted, but that, RAW, is its own thing. It is perceived as a separate entity from the increase to master rank. The increase to master rank is seen as just a hurdle, a paltry bonus. I may well be totally wrong here, but from what I know about games and systems, an immediate correlation between something cool you get and actual uses of it, without requiring further investment of stuff based on it, is much more compelling, right?


“I become a master, so now I can…” is cooler than “I become a master, so now I can choose to take that one ability that is cool.” “And what does being a master do?” *dejected look* “+1.” There is no tangible reward for having a higher proficiency that is intrinsic to the skills or ranks themselves; this has been outsourced to the skill feats, and while I understand why (allowing for player choice – a good thing!) it ultimately serves to neuter the impact of gaining a higher rank.


There are a couple of easy ways to solve the like:


  • Directly link the rank with gaining a skill feat appropriate for the rank. This would require retooling skill feat acquisition, obviously, but would allow for the system to remain mostly intact.
  • Add expert, master and legendary skill use expansions. You’re now legendary, so you can now lob a lockpick at a simple lock and have it pop open. It’s still an incredible or ultimate task, but you couldn’t even dare to try that before. For a more down to earth example: Kip-ups for Acrobatics, autopsies for Medicine…you get the idea. Perhaps make some skill feats alternatively available this way. That way, a master could be a Charming Liar, while a trained individual would require the skill feat. This obviously would require a reevaluation of the skill feats as an entirety, but it would make a core aspect of the game, one that is radically different from the previous edition, more compelling. The rank would matter.

I’d vastly prefer solution number 2, for a simple reason: It would allow for breadth, require no change to the math per se, and allow for meaningful differentiations regarding the tricks at the beck and call of the characters. Let’s return to the example of King Conan, shall we?


He is high enough, level-wise, to succeed at most skill checks that day to day court life requires. That being said, he is no expert, no master, and certainly not legendary at courtly intrigue. As such, it would make sense that there are skill uses that are simply beyond his grasp, skill uses/activities that folks that are better trained simply can do. Not due to specializing via specific selections, but merely by virtue of knowing the etiquette and inner workings of politics.


My claim here is that rank should matter more, and that it wouldn’t be hard to make it matter more. This would also provide a broader base of skill uses sans specialization, with skill-feats as the truly specialized boosts.


Which brings me back to backgrounds: It would be pretty easy to tie such expanded skill uses, backgrounds and ranks together. Have you been raised as a pearl-diver? Well, perhaps you’re treated as an expert for the purpose of qualifying for Underwater Marauder! Or perhaps, you could trade in an ability boost for gaining Quick Swim as though you had master rank in Athletics! Speaking of Athletics: Powerful leap is a great example of something that doesn’t look like a feat to me, and more like a consequence of becoming better at the skill, i.e. a rank increase.


To summarize: As a whole, I love backgrounds and skills as presented in PF Playtest. The focus on breadth rather than depth of skills and the rank-based proficiency system is elegant. I do maintain, however, that it’s, from a psychological point of view, a bit clumsy in that separates skill feats and proficiency ranks in skills, which devalues the latter. It does so under the guise of skill feats allowing for player agenda – and I understand where the decision came from. I am very much in favor of retaining the player agenda angle. However, the perceived thorough decoupling of the immediacy of rank and benefits, at least to me, does not make the rank feel rewarding, just its consequences. I mean, we have rank relevance WITHIN quite a few skill feats, but these are once more a part of the skill feat, and not the rank.


I get where this came from, but it’s puzzling to me nonetheless, particularly after being trained in a skill actually matters and unlocks new skill uses….which is imho the significantly more rewarding approach regarding skills. So yeah, I’m really hoping that expert, master and legendary get some sort of cool base skill use at least, something that makes the rank matter more, that makes players excited about having it. It’d be something that would make this aspect of the game feel more organic, and less like an aspect of the engine that is just there to present a prerequisite hurdle.


What do you think? Do you like how rank, on its own, is basically an almost-non-entity/entry-barrier, and nothing more after being trained? Do you prefer skill feats and how they work right now over my proposed changes? If so, why? I’m genuinely curious!


All right, that’s it for now! Next time, I’ll start dissecting classes! See you then!


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Endzeitgeist out.


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