PF2 Embracing An Old School Aesthetic

Campbell

Relaxed Intensity
Before I get into this I am going to give some personal background. I started playing Dungeons and Dragons with a story focused Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Second Edition game back in 1997 when I was 13. Then went on to run and play a lot of Vampire, Werewolf, and Mage. I come back into Dungeons and Dragons with Third Edition, but was still playing mostly Vampire. The Back To The Dungeon aesthetic of Third Edition intrigued me, but our games were still mostly GM story focused. As many on this board know when Fourth Edition came out I embraced with all my heart, but largely as a different game. The lore and indie RPG techniques that bled into the game excited me.

After awhile I fell out of love, mostly because the game was just too focused on the big stories and not enough on the more personal individual stories. So I largely left adventure gaming behind to focus on games like Sorcerer, Apocalypse World, Monsterhearts, and Masks. I did run some Exalted Third Edition, Demon - The Descent, and Vampire The Requiem Second Edition utilizing a fusion of traditional and indie techniques. Then something happened - Blades in the Dark. Blades is a game about a crew of scoundrels working their way up the underworld of a arcane powered city in the midst of a set of interlocking factions who are all trying to do conflicting things. The game uses a combination of indie and OSR techniques to make this come to life.

After awhile of playing Blades I saw a video where John Harper, the creator of Blades in the Dark, talked about the game of Stars Without Number he was running. It seemed like a lot of fun so I checked it out. Stars is a B/X retro clone that uses elements of Traveler to let you play out games about mostly mercenaries trying to make it in the cold hard vacuum of space. Really it's Dungeons and Dragons in space. I ran it and I had never had so much fun playing a role playing game. The expansive sandbox, factions that went to war with each other regardless of what the Player Characters did, the play procedures that made it clear we were playing a game and the story came after, the asymmetry of information and ruthless nature of the combat system spoke to me.

After awhile of playing Stars Without Number we made the transition to Moldvay B/X and I literally fell in love with Dungeons and Dragons all over again. The dungeon crawls, secret rolls that maintained a fog of war, long term consequences from fighting monsters, strategic play and just overall vibe of the game awoke like something primal in me. The game was seriously good. I loved how as you rose in levels outside the dungeon you also felt more prominent. I loved how monsters were puzzles that needed to be solved. I loved how time was a resource to be managed.

Currently I still play some indie games, some Moldvay, and some Fifth Edition. When Pathfinder Second Edition came out I was initially skeptical. I had always loved the lore of Pathfinder, but the focus on the character building mini-game just was not my thing. I saw some previews and I liked that it had a clear presentation and seemed to have interesting martial characters that looked like they could be played skillfully and the design seemed to speak to the themes of each class. I also loved that they seemed much more grounded in the fiction and lacked resource management. So I got the PDFs, but was still fairly skeptical.

Over the next couple days I starting digging into the rules of both The Core Rulebook and The Bestiary. For a game like this I always find it helpful to analyze things from both sides of the screen so you can see how things fit together. I appreciated that the tone of the game seemed to be more collaborative, really appreciated the class and spell design, but for me the tipping point was really digging into the Bestiary, looking over the skill chapter, and the Exploration section of playing the game. The thing that really sold me personally is how much of Classic Dungeons and Dragons I saw in the game.
 

Celebrim

Legend
"The dungeon crawls, secret rolls that maintained a fog of war, long term consequences from fighting monsters, strategic play... I loved how as you rose in levels outside the dungeon you also felt more prominent. I loved how monsters were puzzles that needed to be solved. I loved how time was a resource to be managed."

This is an aesthetic of play that is widely adoptable to many different rule sets. I play a 3.0e derived D&D game, and I play it in pretty much exactly the way that I played B/X and 1e AD&D.

I do think that Pathfinder 1e by turning certain things up to 11, made certain problems of classic play too trivial, and I'm really not liking that. It has really brought home that my decision to turn many things down a notch was the right direction to take 3e in order to make it play well.

I am not likely to move on to Pathfinder 2e or D&D 5e any time soon, unless some youngster comes along and wants an old man to play with them. But one thing I really do like is seeing players enjoy the playing RPGs and finding their aesthetic niche and a ruleset that supports it.
 

Campbell

Relaxed Intensity
Now I am not saying that Pathfinder Second Edition is an old school game. It is very much a modern game that is as focused on story and immersion as it is on game play. What see in it is a warm embrace of the aesthetics of old school play and the incorporation of key old school mechanics in a more sleek modern way. It calls back to those primordial memories, but provides a different experience of play.

Here are some key areas where I see an embrace of old school aesthetics:
  • An overall focus on uncertainty and risk tasking in everything from combat to skills to the magic system.
  • Class and Level are deeply emphasized, not just mechanically, but also aesthetically. Class is as much about who you are as what you do. When you branch off you never stop being your class.
  • A combat system that is relatively fast and furious. Both monsters and PCs go down fast.
  • Exploration Mode rules that call back to the 10 minute exploration turn, but do so in a more sleek and modern way.
  • An embrace of Secret rolls for things like Searching, Sneaking, Recall Knowledge, and Find Direction. This creates a fog of war where players are never certain if they did not find something because nothing is there or if they did not succeed at their rolls. Combined with meaningful consequences for Critical Failure this means players get to experience the environment in the same way as their characters.
  • Puzzle Box Monster Design. Monsters are designed with unique abilities. They have specific weaknesses, resistances, and immunities. Some like the hydra have distinct mechanics players need to interact with to overcome. Successfully fighting a given monster is as much about learning about the monster as knowing how to use your abilities.
  • There is no set adventuring day or expectation of encounter difficulty. They provide guidelines on how to build an encounter of a certain difficulty, but no talk of how difficult things should be.
  • They openly discuss the impact of player skill on encounter difficulty.
  • Long term consequences. Afflictions like poisons, diseases, and curses are a big deal. Also long term conditions like doomed, drained, and fatigued play a critical role in the game. You are expected to deal with the consequences and keep on adventuring.
  • Encumbrance has made a comeback. It's name is Bulk and it matters a lot.
  • I know for those coming from Pathfinder Vancian magic never went anywhere, but Second Edition is almost emphatic about. The Wizard gets class feats that really emphasize that a properly prepared Wizard is a dangerous thing.
  • Spells that you need to adventure to obtain.
  • Rarity in general. The idea that there are some things you just need to go out and get.
  • Alignment is here to stay and is embraced by things like alignment damage. Champions are uniquely capable at fighting supernatural evil. Champions, Clerics, and Barbarians get specific Anathema that they are bound to. The deity you serve matters. Each god has a specific list of edicts, anathema, and domains. For clerics your specific deity determines what additional spells you can cast.
  • In the roleplaying advice for each class it calls out things like fighters building strongholds, clerics establishing temples, rogues creating a thieves guild, and wizards starting a school. In Lost Omens material they provide organizations for players to join and ascend the ranks of. There is a strong indication that level has narrative significance and as you increase in level you become more important.
 
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Campbell

Relaxed Intensity
"The dungeon crawls, secret rolls that maintained a fog of war, long term consequences from fighting monsters, strategic play... I loved how as you rose in levels outside the dungeon you also felt more prominent. I loved how monsters were puzzles that needed to be solved. I loved how time was a resource to be managed."

This is an aesthetic of play that is widely adoptable to many different rule sets. I play a 3.0e derived D&D game, and I play it in pretty much exactly the way that I played B/X and 1e AD&D.

I do think that Pathfinder 1e by turning certain things up to 11, made certain problems of classic play too trivial, and I'm really not liking that. It has really brought home that my decision to turn many things down a notch was the right direction to take 3e in order to make it play well.

I am not likely to move on to Pathfinder 2e or D&D 5e any time soon, unless some youngster comes along and wants an old man to play with them. But one thing I really do like is seeing players enjoy the playing RPGs and finding their aesthetic niche and a ruleset that supports it.
Definitely. Mostly I am impressed by how they use modern layout and design to clearly present these old and still good ideas in a way that is more accessible to the modern gamer. The clarity with which they explain these concepts and the way present the systems should help revitalize this sort of play (or at least I hope).

I know some people hold that game design advances and there is no place for this sort of strategic play anymore. I do not believe that game design is about advancing forward. I think it is about creating compelling play using the best tools for the job. I think often the best innovations come from combining what is old and what is new.
 
Now I am not saying that Pathfinder Second Edition is an old school game. It is very much a modern game that is as focused on story and immersion as it is on game play. What see in it is a warm embrace of the aesthetics of old school play and the incorporation of key old school mechanics in a more sleek modern way. It calls back to those primordial memories, but provides a different experience of play.

Here are some key areas where I see an embrace of old school aesthetics:
  • An overall focus on uncertainty and risk tasking in everything from combat to skills to the magic system.
  • Class and Level are deeply emphasized, not just mechanically, but also aesthetically. Class is as much about who you are as what you do. When you branch off you never stop being your class.
  • A combat system that is relatively fast and furious. Both monsters and PCs go down fast.
  • Exploration Mode rules that call back to the 10 minute exploration turn, but do so in a more sleek and modern way.
  • An embrace of Secret rolls for things like Searching, Sneaking, Recall Knowledge, and Find Direction. This creates a fog of war where players are never certain if they did not find something because nothing is there or if they did not succeed at their rolls. Combined with meaningful consequences for Critical Failure this means players get to experience the environment in the same way as their characters.
  • Puzzle Box Monster Design. Monsters are designed with unique abilities. They have specific weaknesses, resistances, and immunities. Some like the hydra have distinct mechanics players need to interact with to overcome. Successfully fighting a given monster is as much about learning about the monster as knowing how to use your abilities.
  • There is no set adventuring day or expectation of encounter difficulty. They provide guidelines on how to build an encounter of a certain difficulty, but no talk of how difficult things should be.
  • They openly discuss the impact of player skill on encounter difficulty.
  • Long term consequences. Afflictions like poisons, diseases, and curses are a big deal. Also long term conditions like doomed, drained, and fatigued play a critical role in the game. You are expected to deal with the consequences and keep on adventuring.
  • Encumbrance has made a comeback. It's name is Bulk and it matters a lot.
  • I know for those coming from Pathfinder Vancian magic never went anywhere, but Second Edition is almost emphatic about. The Wizard gets class feats that really emphasize that a properly prepared Wizard is a dangerous thing.
  • Spells that you need to adventure to obtain.
  • Rarity in general. The idea that there are some things you just need to go out and get.
  • Alignment is here to stay and is embraced by things like alignment damage. Champions are uniquely capable at fighting supernatural evil. Champions, Clerics, and Barbarians get specific Anathema that they are bound to. The deity you serve matters. Each god has a specific list of edicts, anathema, and domains. For clerics your specific deity determines what additional spells you can cast.
  • In the roleplaying advice for each class it calls out things like fighters building strongholds, clerics establishing temples, rogues creating a thieves guild, and wizards starting a school. In Lost Omens material they provide organizations for players to join and ascend the ranks of. There is a strong indication that level has narrative significance and as you increase in level you become more important.
I'm really digging your posts, between the film school critical pedigree, and the neo-old-school preferences (you seem to idealize that sort of style, but not in the same way I've seen others have, in reference to realism and harsh mechanics) its a really wonderful perspective.

In this instance I agree with you, the game has all the tools it needs to create these kinds of experiences without all the cumbersome mechanics commonly associated with old school DND.

One thing I find novel, is how 5e sort of discussed this idea of 'three pillars' of game play, but pathfinder 2e actually feels like it was built around that mentality. Exploration's codification really emphasizes that its a central part of the game, and that a full adventure contains both fights against tough enemies, and formalized exploration of an environment.

I was never into the old school thing, but with 5e I found myself lured to the idea of the 'dungeon crawl' that the dungeon is this sort of unique space where I as the GM can take my hands off the plot of the adventure (which can feel like wrangling cats) and focus on 'environmental storytelling' while the players (and their interactions with NPCs of course) shape an emergent plot. Unlike the oversized dungeons of early DND, I prefer for these to be filled with meaningful lore and encounters (you would never just stumble on a room of 2 orcs and a gelatinous cube), and I find myself idealizing the notion of players moving through an environment, and that different groups could have different experiences by siding with different factions, finding different secret passageways and so forth.

PF2e really does that for me in a way 5e didn't (despite that game introducing me to the idea in some of it's design goals), and what I recognize from your post is the why.
 

Arilyn

Adventurer
The rules in PF2 are really laid out clearly. The actual rules of play take up very few pages, around 8-10 I believe? Classes take up a lot of pages because of how they are laid out, but new players I have seen, pick a class that interests them, and then worry about later levels as they come up.

The GM section then advances the game with elaboration, tips. ideas, magic items, etc.

I never thought about it having a more old school feel, but you're right, Campbell. And it's more challenging to play, and that could definitely be its' draw. 5e is gaining a bit of a rep for being too easy, which actually doesn't bother me that much, as I'm kind of a wimp. 😂
 

dave2008

Legend
I’ve heard this story many times and I am sure it is true for you(and others). It just not my experience. I find that I inflict my play style on the game, not the other way around. I’m remember the ranting in the old WotC forums about how you couldn't play “old school” D&D with it. However, we transitioned form 1e AD&D/D&D to 4e and the played the game with little to no difference in our play experience.
 
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Campbell

Relaxed Intensity
I’ve heard this story many times and I am sure it is true for you(and others). It just not my experience. I find that I inflict my play style on the game, not the other way around. I’m remember the ranting in the old WotC forums about how you could play “old school” D&D with it. However, we transitioned form 1e AD&D/D&D to 4e and the played the game with little to no difference in our play experience.
This probably comes down to a fundamental difference in how we approach games. I do not really start with a way I want to play and try to find a perfect system to fit that need. I try to approach games on their own terms, taking in the play procedures and instructions they provide to heart. I am not looking for the perfect system. I am looking for a different play experience. I want a game - not a system. Over time we will customize it to fit the kind of game we want to play, but we mold ourselves to the game so we can have different sorts of play.
 

dave2008

Legend
This probably comes down to a fundamental difference in how we approach games. I do not really start with a way I want to play...
I'm following you and agree with you here, but...

... and try to find a perfect system to fit that need.
It is not a want particularly, it is just how we play. We are not looking for a system, we just play a certain way

I try to approach games on their own terms, taking in the play procedures and instructions they provide to heart.
We went through an experimental phase when we tried a bunch of games, but it just ended up being wasted time and money. Better for us to go back to what we know and love.

I am not looking for the perfect system.
Nor are we, we make whatever imperfect system there is work for us.

I am looking for a different play experience.
Not us, we tried that and it was unpleasant. No need to waste our time with things we don't enjoy. I guess I am like that with food too. I've tried about everything, but a good hamburger is damn near my favorite food and has been since I was about 5.

I want a game - not a system.
Same, that is why we mold every system into the game we like ;)

Over time we will customize it to fit the kind of game we want to play, but we mold ourselves to the game so we can have different sorts of play.
That is what we do too - it just takes less and less time now.
 

Staffan

Adventurer
I’ve heard this story many times and I am sure it is true for you(and others). It just not my experience. I find that I inflict my play style on the game, not the other way around. I’m remember the ranting in the old WotC forums about how you couldn't play “old school” D&D with it. However, we transitioned form 1e AD&D/D&D to 4e and the played the game with little to no difference in our play experience.
Well, everything is a hammer if you want it to be, but if you want to drive nails through wood you'd be better off with a proper hammer than a wrench. Similarly, pretty much every game could be used to play old-schoolish D&D, but it's easier with some than with others.
 

dave2008

Legend
Well, everything is a hammer if you want it to be, but if you want to drive nails through wood you'd be better off with a proper hammer than a wrench. Similarly, pretty much every game could be used to play old-schoolish D&D, but it's easier with some than with others.
Yep, as i said I assumed what he said was true. However, it is just something we do pretty seamlessly. Many people think 4e is very different and promotes a different type of play from 1e AD&D; however, we continued playing our AD&D game in 4e and then into 5e. It doesn't feel like hammering away with a wrench is what I'm getting at, it just feels natural and seamless.

EDIT: This is obviously just our experience, I don't wish to presume the same for others
 
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