Pathfinder 2E Another Deadly Session, and It's Getting Old

kenada

Legend
Supporter
I bought the GMG for PF1 and it was a good resource for that system, and I'd likely find parts of this one useful if I were creating my own adventures. However, for all the debate about the GMG and its entry about the Dungeon Crawl recipe, it's largely not relevant to my group's issue.
I think we ended up on a tangent. I wasn’t specifically referring to your game when I brought that up. I was discussing difficulty and the effect it would have on my group if I had e.g., followed that recipe.

I have been tasked by my players to run PF2's Age of Ashes in as close to a scientific, controlled test as possible. They want to get the "real" PF2 experience, not something I've layered with house rules or redesigned to make it better balanced. They don't want me changing encounters.
The game invites GMs to make changes. What they are wanting is at odds with how the game wants you to run it.

Honestly, it feels like my role is more an interpreter of Paizo's team than a GM, as if I'm a referee of an Organized Play event or scientist in a playtest. There is no roleplay. There is no continuous story connection. It goes from encounter-to-encounter, precisely as written in the published module. Following any structural outlines from GMG wouldn't be useful - my only guide is the Core Rulebook and the contents of the Age of Ashes AP adventures.
Even the PFS guidelines for running adventures allow some variation — they aren’t that strict.

Obviously, groups should play the way they want to play. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s what they should be doing even if it means that certain games are poor fits for them. However, even if it wasn’t intentional, it feels like you were set up for failure.
 

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Campbell

Relaxed Intensity
I bought the GMG for PF1 and it was a good resource for that system, and I'd likely find parts of this one useful if I were creating my own adventures. However, for all the debate about the GMG and its entry about the Dungeon Crawl recipe, it's largely not relevant to my group's issue. I have been tasked by my players to run PF2's Age of Ashes in as close to a scientific, controlled test as possible. They want to get the "real" PF2 experience, not something I've layered with house rules or redesigned to make it better balanced. They don't want me changing encounters. Honestly, it feels like my role is more an interpreter of Paizo's team than a GM, as if I'm a referee of an Organized Play event or scientist in a playtest. There is no roleplay. There is no continuous story connection. It goes from encounter-to-encounter, precisely as written in the published module. Following any structural outlines from GMG wouldn't be useful - my only guide is the Core Rulebook and the contents of the Age of Ashes AP adventures.

I will have more on this later, but I personally think this is a recipe for disaster and involves ignoring about half the text in the game. PF2 is not PF1. It's a game that requires a good deal of applied GM judgement. The game is fairly up front about it. The GM and your GM are incredibly common phrases throughout the entire game. The game expects you to tailor the experience.

Also that would drive me crazy as a GM and I would quit on principle.
 

Retreater

Legend
I will have more on this later, but I personally think this is a recipe for disaster and involves ignoring about half the text in the game. PF2 is not PF1. It's a game that requires a good deal of applied GM judgement. The game is fairly up front about it. The GM and your GM are incredibly common phrases throughout the entire game. The game expects you to tailor the experience.

Also that would drive me crazy as a GM and I would quit on principle.
But jeez, it is difficult to alter it during the game. I've had to program everything in advance onto a VTT (where the module isn't available to purchase). You can't put in new encounter maps and create new encounters on the fly. Editing the attack macros is a chore.

Moreover, when there's a hazard designed to one-shot a PC with an instant-death effect, what tailoring can you do? Switch out the hazard with another spell? Take it out entirely? Drop the DCs by 10 (which would make it survivable at the level)? Where is this information located - in the GMG? (To me, that would be a lot more useful than the recipe outlines that were linked here.)
 

kenada

Legend
Supporter
But jeez, it is difficult to alter it during the game. I've had to program everything in advance onto a VTT (where the module isn't available to purchase). You can't put in new encounter maps and create new encounters on the fly. Editing the attack macros is a chore.
That’s rough. Do you need that level of fidelity?

We use roll20, but I don’t do anything more than make the map and set up the walls. We use Hero Lab Online to handle the mechanics, but the roll20-based character sheet can be flipped to NPC mode for doing creature stat blocks. I used that prior to our switching.

Alternately, if you haven’t invested in roll20, there are other VTTs with better PF2 support. People seem to like Foundry. There’s another, but I can’t remember the name off hand.

You’d still need to set up the content, though someone has redone the maps in Dungeondraft. I’m not really familiar with it, so I don’t know what that entails. However, I am considering a switch myself.

Moreover, when there's a hazard designed to one-shot a PC with an instant-death effect, what tailoring can you do? Switch out the hazard with another spell? Take it out entirely? Drop the DCs by 10 (which would make it survivable at the level)? Where is this information located - in the GMG? (To me, that would be a lot more useful than the recipe outlines that were linked here.)
The “Building Hazards” section of the has guidelines for building hazards. Just use the numbers from a couple of levels lower if you want to weaken a hazard.
 

Campbell

Relaxed Intensity
I do not really use prepared maps like that when I run on virtual table tops. I use flowchart dungeon maps and just draw out stuff as it becomes relevant much like I would with a Chessex battle map and marker in person. I also do not use macros or anything like that. I have only run PF2 in person, but when I ran Lancer (which is just as tactical) I would make on the fly adjustments on a regular basis (based on fictional positioning).

I am definitely the wrong person to ask when it comes to more linear adventures though. I am thoroughly of the Don't Prep Plots style of running a game. I have utilized APs in the past, but not like with the objective to play through them.
 

I bought the GMG for PF1 and it was a good resource for that system, and I'd likely find parts of this one useful if I were creating my own adventures. However, for all the debate about the GMG and its entry about the Dungeon Crawl recipe, it's largely not relevant to my group's issue. I have been tasked by my players to run PF2's Age of Ashes in as close to a scientific, controlled test as possible. They want to get the "real" PF2 experience, not something I've layered with house rules or redesigned to make it better balanced. They don't want me changing encounters. Honestly, it feels like my role is more an interpreter of Paizo's team than a GM, as if I'm a referee of an Organized Play event or scientist in a playtest. There is no roleplay. There is no continuous story connection. It goes from encounter-to-encounter, precisely as written in the published module. Following any structural outlines from GMG wouldn't be useful - my only guide is the Core Rulebook and the contents of the Age of Ashes AP adventures.
Can you stream/record your game? And/Or upload your group's character sheets?
 

Retreater

Legend
Alternately, if you haven’t invested in roll20, there are other VTTs with better PF2 support. People seem to like Foundry. There’s another, but I can’t remember the name off hand.
I've pretty much gone all-in with Roll20. Due to technical differences with our players, a browser based VTT was really the only option. The PF2 support has been fairly underwhelming, but it's improving at least. It's just not there for Age of Ashes. It would honestly be easier for me to create my own adventures than run AoA on Roll20, but the group wants to stick with it.

You’d still need to set up the content, though someone has redone the maps in Dungeondraft. I’m not really familiar with it, so I don’t know what that entails. However, I am considering a switch myself.
The maps haven't been too hard. I just screen capture the map from the PDF and line up the grid. It takes a few minutes and isn't practical to do during the game. Making other maps on the spur of the moment is another issue, though.

The main problem is putting in all the unique and new monsters not in the Bestiary. That takes me hours to do to prep a module.


do not really use prepared maps like that when I run on virtual table tops. I use flowchart dungeon maps and just draw out stuff as it becomes relevant much like I would with a Chessex battle map and marker in person. I also do not use macros or anything like that. I have only run PF2 in person, but when I ran Lancer (which is just as tactical) I would make on the fly adjustments on a regular basis (based on fictional positioning).
I have a very tactical group (whether they are good at it is a different conversation). They absolutely want maps with their PF2.
am definitely the wrong person to ask when it comes to more linear adventures though. I am thoroughly of the Don't Prep Plots style of running a game. I have utilized APs in the past, but not like with the objective to play through them.
Yes. I agree when I'm running other games (I have two other active campaigns). This is sort of the outlier to me.
Can you stream/record your game? And/Or upload your group's character sheets?
I don't think they'd be comfortable with me recording a session. But I might be able to figure out how to screen capture the character sheets and post after work. (I don't think they can be downloaded from Roll20.)
 

!DWolf

Adventurer
I have been tasked by my players to run PF2's Age of Ashes in as close to a scientific, controlled test as possible. They want to get the "real" PF2 experience, not something I've layered with house rules or redesigned to make it better balanced. They don't want me changing encounters. Honestly, it feels like my role is more an interpreter of Paizo's team than a GM, as if I'm a referee of an Organized Play event or scientist in a playtest. There is no roleplay. There is no continuous story connection. It goes from encounter-to-encounter, precisely as written in the published module. Following any structural outlines from GMG wouldn't be useful - my only guide is the Core Rulebook and the contents of the Age of Ashes AP adventures.

Like Fire, adventure paths and rules make good servants but poor masters.

I think your players have placed you in a bad situation: they want the game played in a specific way without houserules/interpretations but you need those things to run it successfully because the specific way they want is not how it is intended to be played: not a single pathfinder GM I know has tried running an AP the way your players want it and I’m sure most of them would say no to running it that way because it wouldn’t be fun for them. Personally, I love the old-school exploration and puzzle solving aspect of the game so cutting those out in favor of an endless stream of combats would just kill it for me. And if you look at the Paizo boards for the Age of Ashes, you will quickly see that most (all?) of the GMs there aren’t trying to run it like that either. And if most pathfinder GMs don’t/won’t run it that way, then how can it be a “real” experience?

And I’m 100% percent sure that the “real” pathfinder experience doesn’t leave the GM miserable. GMs are playing the game too, and they should be having fun as well. If you aren’t, and it sounds like you aren’t, then you need sit down and have a talk to your players about it.

Sidenote: I’m not involved with society, but I’m pretty sure they have a special “campaign mode” for running APs that gives them a lot more leeway in how they run things.
 

kenada

Legend
Supporter
I've pretty much gone all-in with Roll20. Due to technical differences with our players, a browser based VTT was really the only option. The PF2 support has been fairly underwhelming, but it's improving at least. It's just not there for Age of Ashes. It would honestly be easier for me to create my own adventures than run AoA on Roll20, but the group wants to stick with it.
That’s fair. I can understand not wanting to migrate to another tool, especially if you’ve sunk a lot of time into setting up content in the corrent one.

For what it’s worth, it appears I was wrong. I looked at the PF2 community module, and it appears to have AoA content. I’m talking to some people in another community about Foundry and asked them if they knew. (I won’t be able to verify myself until if/when I purchase a license and deploy it.)

Update: I was told by someone who uses Foundry that all the AP material is there, and new material shows up within a week or so of its release. There’s a module that will turn your official PDF into maps with pre-configured walls and notes. Anyway, just an FYI and correcting myself for anyone else reading this.

The maps haven't been too hard. I just screen capture the map from the PDF and line up the grid. It takes a few minutes and isn't practical to do during the game. Making other maps on the spur of the moment is another issue, though.
The maps I use for ad hoc things are terrible scribbles. Last session the party encountered an injured brontosaurus. Everyone cracked up when they saw the horrible thing I was trying to pass off as the dinosaur. 😅
 
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Retreater

Legend
That’s fair. I can understand not wanting to migrate to another tool, especially if you’ve sunk a lot of time into setting up content in the corrent one.

For what it’s worth, it appears I was wrong. I looked at the PF2 community module, and it appears to have AoA content. I’m talking to some people in another community about Foundry and asked them if they knew. (I won’t be able to verify myself until if/when I purchase a license and deploy it.)

Update: I was told by someone who uses Foundry that all the AP material is there, and new material shows up within a week or so of its release. There’s a module that will turn your official PDF into maps with pre-configured walls and notes. Anyway, just an FYI and correcting myself for anyone else reading this.
Yes. Unfortunately, I think Roll20 is the only game in town that will work for us. Foundry (like Fantasy Grounds) requires installation on computers that half our players don't have access to. A browser-based VTT is the only thing that will work for us, and it seems Roll20 is likely the most supported option. Not to mention, I've already spent a couple hundred of dollars and 300+ hours into Roll20.
 


Retreater

Legend
Personally, I love the old-school exploration and puzzle solving aspect of the game so cutting those out in favor of an endless stream of combats would just kill it for me. And if you look at the Paizo boards for the Age of Ashes, you will quickly see that most (all?) of the GMs there aren’t trying to run it like that either. And if most pathfinder GMs don’t/won’t run it that way, then how can it be a “real” experience?
I can enjoy that style of play very much. However, I would say more than half of my players would actively hate that exploration style, the casual player would be okay with it, and the other player is probably going to be leaving for personal reasons anyway in a session anyway.
I'm hesitant to slow the pace further with side quests. Due to TPKs and restarting, testing new character builds, etc, we've been stuck in the quagmire of this second adventure in the AP for about 5 months.
I guess my view is the "real experience" is what Paizo put in the adventure. And if I start adding new locations, plots, NPCs, etc, that will change the experience. Plus there's the additional factor that new material may contradict subsequent AP books.
 

Nilbog

Snotling Herder
Yes. Unfortunately, I think Roll20 is the only game in town that will work for us. Foundry (like Fantasy Grounds) requires installation on computers that half our players don't have access to. A browser-based VTT is the only thing that will work for us, and it seems Roll20 is likely the most supported option. Not to mention, I've already spent a couple hundred of dollars and 300+ hours into Roll20.

Foundry only requires installation on the host computer, this can then be reached through a browser by everyone else, the downside is you need a relatively powerful host pc and a good internet connection for that.

If you don't have that you can always pay a monthly subscription to have your game hosted in the forge which is a dedicated cloud solution. Also if you are tech minded there is a guide out there showing you how to host foundry in AWS. I believe the free tier gives you enough to host as well.
 

!DWolf

Adventurer
I can enjoy that style of play very much. However, I would say more than half of my players would actively hate that exploration style, the casual player would be okay with it, and the other player is probably going to be leaving for personal reasons anyway in a session anyway.
I'm hesitant to slow the pace further with side quests. Due to TPKs and restarting, testing new character builds, etc, we've been stuck in the quagmire of this second adventure in the AP for about 5 months.
I guess my view is the "real experience" is what Paizo put in the adventure. And if I start adding new locations, plots, NPCs, etc, that will change the experience.
Right. I wasn't talking about adding material (although you certainly can). I was talking about not stripping 90% of the module out until it is nothing but a series of combats. Let me get nostalgic here: back in the days of AD&D 2e and earlier, things like CR or monster Level or the 'adventuring day' hadn't been invented yet and each fight was potentially life-threatening since players only had their experience and judgment to determine whether a fight was winnable (Can you take a young black dragon at level 3? A troll at level 1?) But the game still ran, because the games weren't so much about fighting monsters, but figuring out whether you should attempt to fight the monster or sneak by it or talk to it or trick it and so on.

Aside: This incidentally is why some older advice seems really bizarre to modern players - take the concept of reserves, that is the players holding back a wizard or other spellcaster with a couple of high level spells to facilitate a retreat or rescue if the rest of the party gets in trouble - you never see that in modern play and most would (I think) argue against it as a tactic since it decreases your action economy/dpr which makes the fight harder.

The reason I bring this up is Cult of Cinder has the same type of old-school exploration/puzzle encounter structure. You are not meant to charge into every fight swinging, but to explore and puzzle out the encounters, like it was an old school game. Let's look at a specific example area from the module:

The rain, nearly constant within the jungle, comes down in sheets between the broken gaps of the forest canopy here, the clouds above almost black and flashing with lightning. Several of the trees in the area are split open, with jagged wounds along their bark, their insides smoldering red as they burn from the inside out.

This storm-wracked glade is the resting place of one of the Cinderclaws’ dragon pillars, one of the first that was crafted and among the most powerful. Its fell power has resulted in a perpetual storm in the skies above, with sheets of rain and lightning strikes punctuated by ominous blasts of thunder that turn the area into a dangerous trial. Though many of the trees have been blasted open by lightning, the canopy remains mostly intact, providing cover for creatures hiding or flying among the tops of the trees.

Creatures: A small group of bat-like sabosans (page 91) roost here in the undamaged trees, serving as guardians to the dragon pillar. These sabosans were impressed by the power of Belmazog and her patron Dahak and were easily recruited into the Cinderclaws. Although the sabosans’ flight and nightvision capabilities would be incredible assets to the cult if used properly, Belmazog’s limited imagination and poor tactical mind has resulted in the creatures being used here as simple guards. The magic of the pillar does not electrocute the trees where the sabosans are roosting, but the sabosans have little love of being wet and emerge to attack only if the PCs approach the pillar.

Although they respect the Cinderclaws’ power, the sabosans are not willing to die for the cult, and a sabosan reduced below one-quarter of its Hit Points flees back to the main Cinderclaw encampment (see Chapter 4). This can give the PCs a hint as to the direction to travel, but any sabosans who escape in this manner will be healed and present at the Cinderclaw encampment when the PCs reach the fortress, likely stationed on the fort’s encircling wall.

If the PCs manage to capture and question a sabosan, communication may be difficult, as these sabosans speak only Abyssal. The sabosans aren’t intelligent enough to know the answers to most of the PCs’ questions, but they can point the PCs toward the main Cinderclaw encampment, and they do not need to be convinced to do so because they hope that the PCs run afoul of Belmazog and are killed by the cult leader.

SABOSANS (3) CREATURE 5 Page 91 Initiative Perception +10

Hazard:
The yellow dragon pillar is one of the eight dragon pillars that ward the region. Destroying it removes the yellow layer of the protective shell surrounding the Cinderclaw fortress (see Dahak’s Shell on page 54).

YELLOW DRAGON PILLAR HAZARD 6 Page 28 Perception +16

Now you can, if you stretch a bit, read that as: "The PCs are suddenly 60' from the yellow dragon pillar. It uses its reaction to blast them. There are also 3 sabosans here that attack. Roll initiative." But you're basically dumping your party into a severe encounter with no prep – sort of like an old final fantasy game where the screen spins while you are in overland travel mode and you are suddenly in a fight with three imps and a wolf. And it sounds like your players might like that sort of thing, but if they go into a puzzle encounter like this half-cocked and with a “I browse the internet when out of combat” attitude then there is a real possibility that they will get stomped, so you either need to have them try and engage the puzzle exploration aspect, alter the encounter to fit how they are playing the game, or risk a TPK. And it sounds like they are completely unwilling to do the first, they were preventing you from doing the second, and so they keep getting TPKed. From what I have read Age of Ashes, unaltered, seems like a very bad fit for your group.

For the record, I read the area as more like this:

The PCs are traveling and notice that there is a lightning storm centered over a spot; thunder, wind, rain, lightning strikes destroying nearby trees, thinned canopy that still provides cover, etc. And since the PCs notice something off, we switch to exploration turns as they investigate. Notice that in the red text they didn't mention that they see the Dragon Pillar or any monsters immediately attacking, and in the description they actually state that the sabosans don't like the storm and have huddled up in their trees, so they will only attack if the PCs approach the Pillar. The PCs are then going to do their best to explore the scene, work out whats going on, and engage it on their terms (note the subtle clues that the module throws in as to the location of the sabosans and how it gives a lot of information on their morale, knowledge, and motivations). In doing those things, the PCs will of course engage the extensive mechanical framework that PF2e built for this purpose. Maybe they sneak up and try to kill the sabotons; maybe they turn the fighter invisible and have them knock over the pillar before it can electrocute anyone; maybe they try and negotiate with the sabotons; maybe they buff up, raise their shields, and charge in. I can't tell what will happen because the players have agency in this scene – and that is what I'm talking about with exploration and puzzles being part of the module.

Plus there's the additional factor that new material may contradict subsequent AP books.
In general you don’t need to worry about this as long as you don’t make any changes to the underlying structure (main villains, goal of the module, plot important items, etc.) you should be fine. The APs are usually very modular.
 

Of course I see you struggling! That’s is why I wrote multiple massive posts identifying the problem you are having and offering advice. That’s why I list tons of examples that take ages to type out. Have you not read my posts? Let me recap: I wrote a massive post explaining why gms are struggling. I offered advice that would reduce the struggle. I was asked how to do a stealth mission. I offered advice on how to do that (and clarified when I was misunderstood) and even provided a lengthy example of how a sentry removal mission works.
I just wanted to say, thanks for those detailed posts. I wouldn't even call myself a struggling GM (though I am newish compared to this venerable crowd as I started with 5E as a critical role baby), but I reaped a lot of valuable information from your posts. My players and I love Pathfinder 2 coming from 5E and we adore Paizo APs, but reading your posts made me realize that I have a long way to go to give my players a truly great experience.

I really appreciated the actionable examples you included; I am a little too guilty of running encounters without a proper amount of forewarning. I'll study hard to make some truly memorable experiences! Thanks again!
 

!DWolf, I have to admit, I don't run APs and I felt excited in my belly when I read the way that scene is laid out. I think the old school approach really is for me, which is the kick I've been on for quite a while now.

One other consideration that I find interesting for this thread as a whole is the attitude we take toward the difficulty of the game-- the skill level of any given group is static, and so the game is either definitively too hard, or too easy.

But maybe the approach should be taken that the game is somewhat difficult, and so players can learn from there failures and return to the game a little wiser? That's how we approach difficulty in every other genre and medium of game.

Its complicated by the fact that failure in TTRPGs is often 'dumbed down' to represent an ending to the campaign, but it doesn't have to be that way... and even if it were when your players make new characters and jump into their next adventure, they'll still be a little wiser and more cautious about their play.

I've noticed that there's kind of a culture we have of "failure means the GM did something wrong, everything should be designed for us to succeed, with only an illusion of possible failure" that excludes gaming where growing in response to challenge is a consideration, because the players "shouldn't have to do anything different to succeed."
 

Retreater

Legend
!DWolf, I have to admit, I don't run APs and I felt excited in my belly when I read the way that scene is laid out. I think the old school approach really is for me, which is the kick I've been on for quite a while now.

One other consideration that I find interesting for this thread as a whole is the attitude we take toward the difficulty of the game-- the skill level of any given group is static, and so the game is either definitively too hard, or too easy.

But maybe the approach should be taken that the game is somewhat difficult, and so players can learn from there failures and return to the game a little wiser? That's how we approach difficulty in every other genre and medium of game.

Its complicated by the fact that failure in TTRPGs is often 'dumbed down' to represent an ending to the campaign, but it doesn't have to be that way... and even if it were when your players make new characters and jump into their next adventure, they'll still be a little wiser and more cautious about their play.

I've noticed that there's kind of a culture we have of "failure means the GM did something wrong, everything should be designed for us to succeed, with only an illusion of possible failure" that excludes gaming where growing in response to challenge is a consideration, because the players "shouldn't have to do anything different to succeed."
I guess my issue is that the AP fails when this happens repeatedly. You can't have a cohesive story if this keeps happening (3 times in 6 sessions). The lethality of the system seems at odds with the hour-plus character creation mini game and the default assumption of playing an Adventure Path instead of one shots.
We have our first time back tonight after more than a month, or first time since the deaths that inspired my original post. We'll see if it goes differently. I gave the characters an extra level, an extra hero point, and they are replaying the same fight from last season (so they will have the information).
Time to find out if they can do it.
 

Retreater

Legend
For those curious about the fate of the group, I let them advance to 9th level and start the session with 2 hero points, along with knowledge about the hazard and enemies in the following room. I also told them if the hazard was triggered before the door opened, they wouldn't be facing the combat and hazard at the same time. I also figured out how to roll individual initiatives for the like bad guys.
A single religion roll took out the hazard. The party rolled over the next combat. Took a 10 minute break to completely heal up. Stomped the next fight. Ten minute break, fully recovered. Went into the next fight, and had a pretty easy time with that one too, the climatic encounter of the adventure.
The wizard dropped once but was saved by a breath of life reaction. Most others stayed near triple digit HP throughout.
So I guess that was a success? A little too easy for my taste, but it wasn't a TPK at least.
 



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