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Pathfinder 2E PF2: Second Attempt Post Mortem

Retreater

Legend
I'm posting this to collect my thoughts and share the experience I had running PF2 for a second group in a second campaign. In no way am I trying to fault the players in either of the groups (some of whom frequent these boards), nor am I saying that anyone's opinions of PF2 are wrong. If you love the system, great for you.

Proto Experience
My very first experience experience with PF2 was running the Playtest adventure for two players (later in my Age of Ashes campaign). Each played two characters and we attempted the first adventure of the playtest series. The rules weren't finalized, the adventure was designed to test the system more than having actual fun. Not surprisingly, this was a bad first impression of the system. Later attempts with the playtest rules at game conventions (GenCon, Origins) were mixed at best. Still, it wasn't finalized.

First Campaign
The first campaign was the Age of Ashes AP. We played in-person with six players. I did not adjust the encounters to be more difficult for the additional players. Still, the challenges actually felt fair (especially considering two of the players were pretty new at TTRPGs in general). Then the pandemic hit, and we moved online. Only four of the players followed the campaign onto the VTT, so we had a "normal" sized group. After a quick TPK with a Severe Encounter that couldn't be avoided (towards the end of Book 1), my wife encouraged her brother to join us as a player - so we had 5 players. After that point, we averaged a TPK every other session, constantly attempting to "restart" encounters that were going poorly. The whole experience felt like an extension of the playtest experience, as if we were still testing an unstable version. In the end, we finished Book 2 of Age of Ashes, and couldn't go on for various issues.

Intermission
I signed up to play some Pathfinder Society at Gameholecon online. It was not a bad system. After talking to many Paizo fans, it seemed like a combination of a bad AP, some GMing errors, and bad faith players might've contributed to the bad experience we had with the campaign. So I thought I would give PF2 a second chance.

Second Campaign
I found a second group of willing participants (the only carry-over from the previous campaign was my wife, who legitimately loved the system). We were going to do the most current (at the time) AP, which was going to be half the length of all the others, and written by one of the main Pathfinder authors. The Abomination Vaults had to be good, right?

The VTT Issue
The first glaring problem facing the campaign was that the largest VTT in the business (Roll20) has limited PF2 support. In fact, that "cream of the crop," current Adventure Path wasn't even available on the VTT. So using my PDFs, I had to scan each map, align to the grid, draw in walls and dynamic lighting, create dozens of unique monsters and NPCs. Each dungeon level took about 5 hours to put into Roll20. While other VTTs are available, they still required a lot of work and expertise to learn, more money to invest, etc.

Problems with the AP
Perhaps not surprisingly, if players don't love dungeon crawls, they might not like this AP. However, it is amazing the lack of content other than dungeon crawling in this AP. There are 10 levels of never-ending dungeon -- no plot, no mystery, no meaningful roleplaying opportunities. Nothing but monsters that fight "to the death" (yes, you can search the PDF for that specific phrase) or ones that give unreasonable demands to the party ("you can surrender to the ghoul king and be eaten alive. do you want to do that, or fight to the death?") Rooms that are too small for meaningful combat movement, no foreshadowing for the players or GM about what's upcoming in the adventure. No time pressure - a 15-minute walk back to town for a full rest any time you want.

Problems with the System
Despite having played the system with the current group for 5 months, I'd say that none of us moved beyond a novice level with the system. And when we did, the individual fights didn't feel exciting enough to be the focus of the session. A single combat could take the majority of the session. Players felt like their characters were worthless. In a 1.5-2 hour combat, if you have a rogue and you can't sneak attack a monster AND it ignores the first 7 points of damage you do on each attack, you don't feel very important. In a 1.5-2 hour combat, if you have a monster that can easily save against all your spells, your caster isn't going to feel great. This would happen with more frequency than you'd like. Severe encounters (of which there would be a couple on each dungeon level), could be TPKs or exercises in frustration ("you just can't win. no matter what you do.") And yes, we attempted intimidations, trips, shoves, etc.

Second Attempt, Finished
So we had signed on to try the system. Most of the players had been like me - gamers who had tried the system before but it just didn't connect. An honest, fair second-chance didn't change things. Some of these players had been fans of PF1, 5e, D&D 4e, or other systems. It unanimously failed with each of us.

Why I Think PF2 Didn't Click (for us)

Bad Adventure Design
Sure, "Age of Ashes" suffered because it was written before the rules were finished and the challenges are way too difficult. I have heard "Plaguestone" suffered a similar issue. "Abomination Vaults" - well, that's not going to appeal to people who don't like dungeon crawls, obviously.
But these issues are merely scratching the surface of why the adventure design in 2e is bad. And I think the root of the issue is the same as the bad adventure design that 4e had. Combats are big, involved things, but they aren't given the space (physically, as in the number of squares in the module; or distance from encounter-to-encounter; or time from encounter-to-encounter) to actually pull off that importance. You can't have your encounters play off each other. They can't be reactive or dynamic - or you'll risk an easy TPK.
Still, the writers are creating adventures like it's PF1, and they play not so great.

Bad Rules
Too many conditions. Too many feats. Too many options. I think Paizo realizes that more people buy their adventures to read them than actually play them, and on the same token, more characters are made for the char-gen mini game than are ever taken to an actual table. This dichotomy ensures there are two factions to the Pathfinder fan-base (the players and the theory-crafters), and the two actively work against each other. I know - I've GMed for theory-crafters (who are fine losing their characters to try other "sick builds.") Meanwhile, those who care about plot, story, and roleplay are shut out by a treadmill of power creep that has travelled 5 miles in two years. When your character keeps getting shut-down by the design of the monsters, you're going to need to constantly re-design your character.
 

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kenada

Legend
Supporter
While I’m not quite as pessimistic about PF2, we did move on from it too. Thanks for sharing! I appreciate the post mortem.

I agree that PF2 seems to have several audiences with interests that aren’t quite aligned. I’d actually add PFS to the mix, and those who buy adventures to read them as well (you called out the latter, but it didn’t seem like they were included in your list vs. players and theory-crafters).
 
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payn

Hero
Heya Folks,

Im a player from Retreater's second PF2 campaign. Some of this I agree with, some I dont, and some I'm unsure of. Lets get to it then!

Im a long time 3E/PF1 fan. Still my favorite fantasy system. I did watch carefully as PF2 was developed and revealed. I also did some playtesting and it wasnt shaping up to be something I liked. Fast forward a few years and I was eager to give PF2 another round and see if my mind had changed. Retreater tossed out the idea of giving Abomination Vaults a shot. Its a dungeon crawl campaign that would let us really kick the tires of the PF2 system. So, away we went.

The system.
Chargen seems to have been silo'd much like it was in 4E (even used a similar multiclass system). I don't really care for this it feels a bit stifling compared to PF1. A lot of "every class has 2-3 paths" and multiclassing has a dedication system that makes sure you stay in a particular lane. I get that these guides are supposed to keep people from building a crappy character, but it really takes some of the fun out of the glorious Lego system the PF1 was.

Feats. So the designers decided to take the feat design of 3E/PF1 and apply it to everything in PF2. Skill feat choices now come in, once a campaign use, once a session use, and once an encounter use. Hmm, which shall I choose? Just go ahead and apply that to class, ancestry, archetype, etc...

Stealth ADEU makes adventure pacing awkward. I know a lot of folks ran to PF to get away from 4E, though, you can see a lot of similar design in PF2. One thing is the weirdness of encounter powers that reset after a ten min rest. The healing rules make use of skills odd too. A constant game of "GM, do we have 10 min?.. 20?... 30?.. to rest?" going on with the GM to recharge and heal. Adventure pacing is odd and I honestly prefer a sub-system where you can short rest x amount of times per day to heal up and recharge encounter powers. Seems like the designers went out of their way to not ruffle any sensibilities of folks that don't like ADEU, which I can understand.

+1 to everything and encounter design. This is one of my biggest issues with PF2. This math system locks you into a certain band of possible encounters. Things below your level are super easy, things higher are tougher. What I found is that sever/extreme encounters (+3/4 APL) often shut down a lot of character choices by making them painfully ineffective. Some PF2 aficionados I know told me I have to learn the winning combos of things that help the other PCs and eat enemy actions. Thats a bummer because it eliminates a lot of spells and feats from being useful. The worse part though, the critical system ensures that severe/extreme enemies will hit often, and have good chances of critical hits/saves, while the opposite is true for the PCs. I was also told by my PF2 aficionados that severe/extreme encounters are supposed to be rare and challenging encounters and not a regular occurrence like they tended to be in AV AP. Perhaps I'd enjoy a less steady diet of them but we can discuss this during adventure design.

The rules are bad?
I dont think so. I think they feel bad at times, which is subjective. I get why Paizo went with a gonzo +/lvl to everything approach to differentiate Pathfinder from D&D. I just prefer bounded accuracy. I get why classes are silo'd and MC was reigned in because it makes a math system easier to maintain. It just limits options and choices, even if many of them might be terrible. I understand why more healing options and encounter powers were added. I just want old school resource attrition adventuring instead. The rules for combat, conditions, etc.. are not too many, they are just new, different, and complex. I can run a PF1 game in my sleep, which I couldn't do 20 years ago, probably not even 10 years ago. It takes time to grok a new crunchy system.

Bad Adventure Design???
To be fair to Retreater, this is the first time I sat at their (virtual) table. I don't know what a typical game is from Retreater. From the amount of prep in both the adventure material into roll20, and learning the PF2 system, I don't think this was typical. I have not read any of the material for Abomination Vaults (or any PF2 AP). I do have extensive experience running PF1 adventure paths and know they can vary AP to AP and module to module in quality. I have not experienced something this basic though. I did ask my PF2 aficionados about the AV AP and the comment, "no plot, no mystery, no meaningful roleplaying opportunities." and they said that is simply not the case with AV. I cant confirm, nor can I deny, that Abomination Vaults is bad adventure design at this time.

Why I think it didnt click for us.
I think Retreater has the right idea about the lack of an interesting adventure and roleplay being an issue. I also think there were a lot of growing pains learning the PF2 system that bogged things down. There were also things that just didnt feel good during this attempt. The weight of all that just collapsed the desire to go on. I am fine with that because my goal was try out PF2 mechanically, which I got a good taste of. I look forward to seeing what Retreater has in store in a new system and adventure soon.

What I think of PF2 now.
I can enjoy the design for what it is and what it is trying to do. Its way more tactical than 5E, yet not as flexible as PF1. I am putting PF2 in the same bucket I put 5E in. Its not my favorite system, but i'll play if a GM I know well has an interesting idea they want to run. Though, my heart remains with PF1 as a player. Though, after the years and new systems, I don't know if running PF1 is my favorite anymore. I'd like to give PF2 a go as a GM sometime, but dont know when.

-Cheers
 

Parmandur

Book-Friend
Thanks for taking the time to share your experiences. I initially downloaded the playtest rules because I wanted to experiment with the life path system, but couldn't make it through making a character due to not finding the process interesting. Haven't really given it a look since.
 

Retreater

Legend
@payn thanks for sharing your experience on here. It gives a different perspective than my complaining rant.
Even with everything I said, I would run PF2 again, improving upon my past experiences. Starting from scratch, I would either want an AP fully integrated into the VTT or to write my own adventures. AV didn't give me a lot to work on - and some of that could be that I don't know a lot of Paizo lore. Other GMs also inserted quests from Trouble Under Otari (?) - the short adventure compilation that follows the Beginner Box adventure.
 

I'll also note I don't think any of the people in the PF2e campaign I'm in tidily land in the "two groups" you suggest, at least as you describe them, Retreater. As an example, I don't think either of the characters I've played felt like they were "shut out" by the system.

To the degree I agree with the above, I'd be more prone to agreeing with Payn that there can be concepts that were able to be realized in PF1e and D&D3.0 that have been pushed out of practicality in PF2e. I just don't see it as quite the net-negative as he does, because my feeling is that if you want a really open-ended character build system, a class system is not how you want to go in the first place, and it tends to try and paper over the very real abuse too much freedom of design in that context can produce because it hides a lot of it. So I think its a fair tradeoff (remembering that, again, when I want really wide character design options I'm unlikely to look at anything in the D&D sphere in the first place).

That said, I won't suggest its something that's going to work for everyone; I just don't think its a particular bad mark against it that it doesn't.
 

Retreater

Legend
That said, I won't suggest its something that's going to work for everyone; I just don't think its a particular bad mark against it that it doesn't.
I guess my "bad mark against it" might originate from my DM/GM ego. I'm very confident in my ability to run a solid D&D-style TTRPG, and I'm aware that's also one of my limitations. I've been running these types of games since the late 1980s, and very familiar with the d20 system since its creation in the early 2000s with 3.0. When a system crashes and burns for a couple of groups that I've GMed for as spectacularly as PF2 has - under a variety of circumstances - I look for a common denominator.
It's true that I am a common denominator. Maybe I'm just not good at running PF2, but I'm fine at running 3.x, D&D 4e, 5e, 13th Age, PF1, etc. I wanted the Abomination Vaults campaign I ran to be proof that I could challenge myself to run a good PF2 game. So I have to look at a) maybe I'm a bad GM; b) maybe the adventure was set up to be not good; or c) there is a flaw in the system.
So when I analyze the end of the campaign (which I do at the end of every campaign), I'm left wondering if you take a GM who wants something to work, really reads and tries to understand the rules and the adventure, has decades of experience running this time of game, with a group of players who actually want it to succeed and are competent/experienced players - with all these factors considered - if the game still doesn't work, where is the issue? If you have a group who likes heroic fantasy in the style of PF/D&D and the game still doesn't work, where is the issue? If you have an adventure written a year after the main rules were made available, by one of the core designers of the system, can it be the fault of the adventure?
These are all questions I'm asking.
 

payn

Hero
PF1 may be my favorite but Its not anything goes. I use 20pt buy, add in a few extra traits, and ban a few archetypes and/or classes. I usually play up to level 12 or even do E6. I've got my fine tuning to make the game play right in my wheelhouse. It took a lot of gaming to find out how to do that.

With PF2, I think I'd probably use the free archetype variant for sure. As GM, I'd be sure not to lean to heavily into severe/extreme encounters. In a sandbox game id be very sure as GM to signpost the hell out of things because its easy to get in over your head. Past editions a savvy group can punch above their weight, but in PF2 it doesn't work like that, IME.
 

All legitimate questions, Retreater, but you have to turn it around too: other people run successful PF2e campaigns, and have had time to do so repeatedly now. So if the problem is with the game, how do they do so?

I'd just suggest there's something about PF2e that just doesn't work for you, and its probably a combination of interactions of its structure and your style that's going to be hard to disassemble.
 

PF1 may be my favorite but Its not anything goes. I use 20pt buy, add in a few extra traits, and ban a few archetypes and/or classes. I usually play up to level 12 or even do E6. I've got my fine tuning to make the game play right in my wheelhouse. It took a lot of gaming to find out how to do that.

With PF2, I think I'd probably use the free archetype variant for sure. As GM, I'd be sure not to lean to heavily into severe/extreme encounters. In a sandbox game id be very sure as GM to signpost the hell out of things because its easy to get in over your head. Past editions a savvy group can punch above their weight, but in PF2 it doesn't work like that, IME.

Yeah, that all seems fair. I should note that from your description, you tend to stop right about the time D&D 3e tended to really start to break down.

To some degree good coordination from a group can have them punch above their weight in PF2e, but its not going to be to the degree you saw it in PF1e because there's just a lot less ways to start stacking up bonuses. But you're not wrong in general in that second paragraph, certainly.
 

willrali

Explorer
I think Paizo realizes that more people buy their adventures to read them than actually play them, and on the same token, more characters are made for the char-gen mini game than are ever taken to an actual table. This dichotomy ensures there are two factions to the Pathfinder fan-base (the players and the theory-crafters), and the two actively work against each other.

What?

Anyway, it's unfortunate that PF2 didn't work out for you guys. My group of complete newbie players love the system and the stories we're telling with it. Just so much of it is inspirational, the skills and options provide a huge framework for creativity, and the encounters play fast and fun. We just finished Abomination Vaults (I did some tweaking as I do with every module), and everyone had a ball.

YM obviously MV 🤷‍♂️
 


prosfilaes

Adventurer
All legitimate questions, Retreater, but you have to turn it around too: other people run successful XYZ campaigns, and have had time to do so repeatedly now. So if the problem is with the game, how do they do so?

You can say that about almost any XYZ, AD&D 1, AD&D 2, D&D 3.0, D&D 3.5, D&D 4, Pathfinder 1E, Rifts, Palladium Fantasy, etc. The problem is always between the game and the players, but that doesn't mean the game works well for certain, many or most people.

I'm running the Agents of Edgewatch now, and it's not working for me.

On the good side, I like the three action economy. I haven't really built PCs with the system, but I like, at least in theory, the generalizing of feats.

On the bad side, some of it may be my particular group of PCs, but battles are long and grindy and boring. There's more than enough healing for the PCs to outrun any battle; maybe because the earlier levels were occasionally deadly, the PCs have adapted to turtle at level 12.

NPCs aren't built like PCs any more, but that doesn't necessarily help; instead of knowing what a rogue can do, each enemy has bespoke powers. Last night's adventure even had stupid ones; it's a 12th level adventure, why do the NPCs have powers that only work against 11th level or lower characters? I wanted easier to run monsters, but PF2 is not delivering.

The removal of most of the must have magic items, like attribute boosts, doesn't seem have to made magic item choices any more interesting.

It's a somewhat minor thing, but the attribute part of character creation is grossly complex, for what value? If you're worried about minimaxing, give me a stat array, or a choice of a couple stat arrays, and go on.

For the ugly, maybe I haven't learned it well enough, but I feel I've taken a overly complex, crunchy game system I knew, and traded it for a overly complex, crunchy game system I don't know, a jump quite a bit bigger than D&D 3 to Pathfinder, and for little gain. For example, the XP system was changed; why? The book doesn't really help you learn it, from anew or just the differences; the skills section started on page 243. Yes, PF1 was like that, but it was close enough to 3.5 and by now I know PF1.

I've talked with a couple players, and we may jump ship, probably back to PF1, or maybe try out Starfinder for a while.
 

I think newbs have an advantage of not having decades of previous system experience that carries preconceived notions and preferences.

That's bound to be true, but its not the whole picture; in the group I mentioned, three were previously PF1e players pretty regularly, and while I and my wife hadn't done it in a number of years, we'd been involved in a D&D 3e campaign at one time.
 

You can say that about almost any XYZ, AD&D 1, AD&D 2, D&D 3.0, D&D 3.5, D&D 4, Pathfinder 1E, Rifts, Palladium Fantasy, etc. The problem is always between the game and the players, but that doesn't mean the game works well for certain, many or most people.

Which, if you read what else I wrote to him, was my point. Though the latter part of your sentence can be nothing but speculation without ability to poll people in a fashion that simply doesn't exist.
 
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prosfilaes

Adventurer
Which, if you read what else I wrote to him, was my point. Though the latter part of your sentence can be nothing but speculation without ability to poll people in a fashion that simply doesn't exist.
"The problem is always between the game and the players, but that doesn't mean the game works well for certain, many or most people." That sentence? No, you don't need polls to figure that out. That's obvious.

Polls would help to figure out how many people the game doesn't work well for, but you're overstating your claim; it's far from impossible to get a gauge on sales figures, usage of online platforms, what's being run at tournaments, etc. It's not the data we might want, but it certainly is data, and rejecting it in order to deny what it might reveal is absurd.
 

"The problem is always between the game and the players, but that doesn't mean the game works well for certain, many or most people." That sentence? No, you don't need polls to figure that out. That's obvious.

I think at the least the "most" is doing some serious heavy lifting in that sentence that needs more support for it to be taken as a given.

Polls would help to figure out how many people the game doesn't work well for, but you're overstating your claim; it's far from impossible to get a gauge on sales figures, usage of online platforms, what's being run at tournaments, etc. It's not the data we might want, but it certainly is data, and rejecting it in order to deny what it might reveal is absurd.

Accepting it when there are a bunch of factors in most of those that distort it is also absurd. For example, sales figures will end up ignoring that Paizo has its own storefront where a lot of its sales go, so sales from other sources (where a company does not do its own sales) will be distorted. So unless you're willing to go in and account for such things, no, I don't think most available numbers are particularly useful.

(And that's not even getting into the question of what is being compared to: if its 5e or PF1e, that tells you not much of anything since the former drowns the whole rest of the hobby, and the latter was able to take advantage of a particular period and situation that never will occur again to a non-WOTC company most likely).
 

prosfilaes

Adventurer
I think at the least the "most" is doing some serious heavy lifting in that sentence that needs more support for it to be taken as a given.
No; if you don't know, you don't know. It could be anywhere from virtually none to virtually all.
Accepting it when there are a bunch of factors in most of those that distort it is also absurd. For example, sales figures will end up ignoring that Paizo has its own storefront where a lot of its sales go, so sales from other sources (where a company does not do its own sales) will be distorted. So unless you're willing to go in and account for such things, no, I don't think most available numbers are particularly useful.

(And that's not even getting into the question of what is being compared to: if its 5e or PF1e, that tells you not much of anything since the former drowns the whole rest of the hobby, and the latter was able to take advantage of a particular period and situation that never will occur again to a non-WOTC company most likely).

This is the most frustrating type of numbers denial, where it doesn't mean anything, but somehow you're already explaining how the numbers are wrong.
 

No; if you don't know, you don't know. It could be anywhere from virtually none to virtually all.

Correct. Which means if you're going to claim something toward one end or the other, you need to support it or its just a blind claim.


This is the most frustrating type of numbers denial, where it doesn't mean anything, but somehow you're already explaining how the numbers are wrong.

If you select from things that are potentially producing garbage results because you're ignoring context, I don't feel a need to call them anything but potentially producing garbage. If that's frustrating to you, so be it.
 

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