Pathfinder 2E Secrets of Old Pandora: The First Five Levels (A PF2e West Marches Report)

So, some of you might be aware that for the past six months, I've been running a Pathfinder 2e West Marches on my Discord Server. Since many of our players recently hit level 5, I thought it was a good time to talk about how that's gone so far, since I know several members of the community are interested in the system's potential for sandbox gaming, and in how the system can be adjusted to support a different style of play. So foremost, let me introduce you to the Isle of Crosstaine, the starting point for our adventures through the Pandoran Islands.
Greater Crosstaine.png

This map was created by one of my fellow GMs on the server, best friend, and long time player Soul_Writ3r. It sits in the center of the islands and in L14 is the ramshackle outpost of Scoundrel's Key, wherein would be pirates and treasure hunters have gathered, drawn to the isles by rumors of an island chain full of ancient ruins and abandoned riches. In the past, it was the site of a Pirate Golden Age, a staging ground for countless crews and a pirate nation that fought a war with the infamous Black Moon Syndicate. Now it's the player's starting town, where they set off on each voyage using the hexploration procedure native to Pathfinder 2e. So without further ado, here's my player's guide for the game. We use Foundry VTT for the sessions themselves.

To summarize, players use a lead ranging from "We want to explore to the west" to "We want to investigate that strange temple we found in J11" to "We're searching for the lost city of Atlanta we heard about from that traveling peddler" to initiate a voyage, which is possibly multiple play sessions length beginning when they leave town, and ending when they return to any town they have a writ for, and are responsible for both gathering a crew and arranging the schedule with one of the GMs to run it, detailed spaces like dungeons must be explored with the GM who 'owns it,' something they find out when they find the entrance (or hear about it). The above map on the GM side is divided into zones with their own wandering monster and event tables, each with a designated level (and an expectation of four players) so that players can plan how in over their head they want to get, and things get easier the more players you bring (but obviously, they likely have to split treasure more ways). The players didn't start with boats, so they were intentionally funneled west at first, in a soft, geographical nudge toward somewhat appropriate content, but got them pretty shortly after (and could have just bought them even earlier, so they could have insisted on traveling in another direction as early as session 2, rowboats aren't very expensive so they really just needed a little more than they can reasonably start the game with-- hell, an enterprising party of new pcs could do it by pitching starting gold if they kept their starting equipment sufficiently cheap.)

Very Importantly, players level up by spending gold between voyages, directly tying the acquisition of treasure to the game's core progression system, we also tripled the expected amount of gold to facilitate this and the sandbox expectation that sometimes you won't find the treasure, it was fairly simple to set the gold required to the usual amount a single player gets in a level according to the CRB, and then use the treasure by encounter table x3 to make sure there was a good leveling speed, even when they spend money on magic items:
Level Up Example.png

Our first session saw the players leaving the town and searching the adjacent L13 hex, where I had stocked a "tidal pool table" to be rolled on whenever a search is initiated in the hex. The table is built as a kind of default activity for a new party of adventurers who don't know where to find something interesting and has encounters, pointers to other hexes, and treasure, though each result gets crossed off if the player's find it. In this case they actually did so well in buttering up an NPC, I gave them an extra roll on the table in the guise of the NPC giving them something, which produced a strange key and since they didn't even want the key, but instead to make a mold of it (which was just a spare piece of gear PF2e apparently has one of the player's took, along with a brass ear of all things) it was easy for them to get a copy of it. They continued checking hexes and coincidentally ended up in K14, and finding an enormous metal door buried in the sand, which was actually what the key corresponded to, and so a party of level 1 treasure hunters wandered into a prestocked level 3 lair. The map is simple and publicly available.

In exploration mode they rounded corners, a skittering noise being noticed just in front of them before they came to the point where the left and right hallways meet, and decided to check the southern room first. One of their number, a Strix cleric, lowered themselves into the pit, full of skeletal parts to retrieve some very valuable magic items (bear in mind, gold scales exponentially with level in Pathfinder 2e, and they were two levels below this place and knew it) it was then that the Ghouls, who had hidden in the very back as they lured the party deeper into the cave, flooded the room with the pit. It would have been a severe encounter for level 3s, and the players, boxed into the room thought they were finished, but they got to work, the armor inventor rocked up into their midst and used an AOE (leveraging a once per day extra action from a rare background they got for GMing the prior campaign) then proceeded to tank them like a champ, others ran off into the rest of the party, running interference while they tried to get their friend out of the pit. Eventually, the rogue managed to get a rope down to the cleric and pull them out, which was a game changer as the 3 action version of the heal spell also hurt the ghouls. After a super gross, cinematic moment with the ghast who led the ghouls, they were able to finish off them off and finish looting the lovely treasure in the pit, netting them a Retribution Axe among other odds and ends. But they weren't quite out of the woods, what followed was a multi-day struggle in the field against the crippling effects of Ghoul Fever. But with luck and medicine checks, they pulled through and returned to town triumphant and, I'm proud to say, exhilarated, from their first voyage.

After that, events proceeded apace with two primary goals, unlock their second town, and kill the Giant Hermit Crab who had stolen one of the hulks that served as homes in Scoundrel's Key for cash. I happened to lose a character to it in M14, an Orc Magus, and also got to help kill it (using a new Magus) in a later voyage after that one ended in failure. The second town goal, however, had an interesting resolution, one group set out to follow the road across the tidal causeway to the west (which links L12 and L13) to find another town, but scheduling issues prevented them from continuing until another group of different characters actually followed it much more quickly (not stopping to search every hex) and arrived at the town first, buying their writs and gaining a new settlement for downtime, and a new staging point for voyages, located in K10-- which also unveiled our first actual dungeon, an attached lighthouse and manor complex with strange eldritch undertones, run by one of the other GMs (the oubliette was something any of us was allowed to run, since it can be keyed very simply.) The whole area to the west of the causeway is the 'haunted hills' with a designated level of 2 (sometimes a harsh level 2, granted) and a spooky theming.

We very quickly transitioned from a hex unknown structure to a hex known one, as the players hated piecing it together from landmarks and drawing their own without meta information, this worked much better as the general shape of the continent became an inviting series of hooks and reminders of unexplored territory, what is in each hex is still a mystery until it is explored of course.

Another fun story involves a use of the retreat rules, where the party desperate to evade a group of Biloko in I17 using their recently acquired rowboat (from the manor!) to explore the eastern swamps. We went through obstacles like "Monkeys on the branches hurling pebbles at you" and "you come to a fork, how do you decide which way to go" and I let the players work out ways to contribute, one of the players actually handled the second one by creating a decoy lead that would send the biloko down the wrong fork. The chase rules in pf2e work super well as a sandbox retreat system.

Later, I got to see a clause I built into the Voyage and Leads procedure, where a player can suggest a lead based in their backstory and a GM can accept it as valid material take effect, and that was a fun session-- our resident Wellspring Mage Summoner, an unknowingly dispossessed heiress heard one of her daddy's ships was in the area and wanted to try and get back to him, only to discover he was trafficking other Wellspring individuals, resulting in a fun rescue operation that had an infiltration challenge (same basic victory point structure as the chase rules) and some strong roleplay and character development in it. The player backstory clause is definitely a good addition to my procedure, and it's easy enough to not let it take over, since the GMs can simply refuse to run a particular lead until normal leads have been run more often if it started happening more than we thought healthy.

Another time, they encountered a patrol of goblins and managed to talk their way out of a fight, but the goblins took a nearby hill fort in L12 to establish themselves in the eastern portion of the zone, which would have likely led to raids on the key (I actually have a procedure for 'timed events' like this and how to intervene / what happens if you don't, it relies on time advancing every three real world months, but being ambigious within that season-- so the quest to repel invaders can occur at any time before then, but if its not the GMs can modify the world accordingly) if they didn't deal with them, so one of our PC Goblins, Bonzu the Great, led an assault on the hill fort and claimed it in his own name, it is now theoretically 'Fort Bonneru' though I don't have a system in place for player owned settlements or forts, so its not providing a mechanical presence right now.

I figured out pretty fast that while the neutrality is fun, it required us to build some additional safety nets into the procedure-- at low levels, foes are likely to demand something from the PCs in place of a TPK, and another GM discovered that we could let players engage in healing in exchange for time during a chase-- taking a moment to administer a potion to dying ally at the cost of not advancing the current obstacle and bringing the party closer to being caught. We took for granted that largely everyone can detect everyone else's level, like a Dragon Ball z power level, which often gives players a very good idea of what they can and can't take. This also led to the following guideline: foes pretty much universally prefer to attack targets that are bigger threats to them, rather than lower level PCs-- though they won't have mercy with fireballs or breath weapons and such either. This has allowed us to do some cool level mixing without the game system's level scaling making it, so low level PCs wouldn't want to come along. Our new player, a level 1 alchemist, has used this to come along on a level 4 lead, providing support through their alchemical items but mainly ducking behind cover. Paizo gave us a big boon too, in the form of the player undead rules from Book of the Dead, now if a player character dies, and resurrection isn't an option for whatever reason, they can be directed to rebuild as undead if they'd prefer to continue their character's story, its a lovely organic "second chance" system built into the game.

So far the players have explored a small handful of dungeons, and ranged as far north as their next towns in G7 (the ruined farmlands zone, beset by Goblin Ninja bandits) and H18 (the swamp zone, horribly corrupted by my setting's overarching threat of aberrations.)

There are major plot points (recurring story threads that exist throughout the hexes, public events, and dungeons) the players have started to uncover, including the Black Moon Syndicate's hold on the nearby city of Crosstaine (which the island is named for) in the island's western half, and some surprisingly intricate politics involved with it, and the ancient fey worshipping civilization of half elves that resided here, and the true purpose of the lighthouse and the strange ley lines that crisscross the islands, and finally, the renegade psychopomp Davey Jones and his minions, who serves as a tyrant demigod and tempts pirates to make deals in exchange for many years of service after their eventual deaths.

Challenges

One of our biggest challenges has been player retention, not because the game isn't enjoyable but because my core group has had some extreme work related scheduling changes, and West Marches are prone to people ghosting since it isn't confronted by an ongoing commitment, and ghosting is already frequent among online-met players-- as a result the game has slowed down somewhat during the summer as everyone has gotten fairly busy. Unfortunately, player scheduling simply remains a challenge because most players don't want to take the initiative and instead approach each weekend in terms of 'oh what are we doing' rather than having goals-- so there's a passivity there that has led to GMs kind of prodding things to indirectly organize it themselves, the worst expression of this is the tendency some players have to try and play every weekend by ear-- some of that is work schedules not releasing until later than you'd think which is fine (there's simply no way anyone will know what dates they will be available in a month, or even further out than the next few days) but some of it appears to be more about wanting to stay free on any given night and hoping other players are stable enough in their scheduling to support that drop in, only for the GMs to go into the weekend not entirely sure they should have actually kept their own schedules free for game after all. Its not the worst because in theory we're just prepping whats there anyway, but its still frustrating to have to be so flexible to make sure game happens as often as possible.

Similarly, players (mine anyway) don't talk as much as the Ben Robbins blogs would lead you to believe, which has led to people being unaware of each other's leads, since I deliberately avoided centralizing information in one place to encourage a social metagame or personal conversation. I think this has to do with the culture of play they come from being less oriented toward planning than some older play cultures are. This has humorously led to a player complaining they didn't have any leads to find a ship, but another player has been holding onto one since level 3, and still other players were also aware of it. We have too many players now for a regular game (and schedules don't line up for that either) but too few for as stable a west marches as we'd like, some of that is also the fact that we're careful about who we add to our community, for good reason, so we don't have the massive public discord server going on, it has 36 total members, and a large portion of those are social connections of the core group who never come on but have the channel for occasional video games or people who never really followed through.

Another problem is the prep of a hexcrawl... the actual work isn't too much, I was able to fill out the hexes (probably making the content too dense) in like a fourth of this in very short order (like a week of fairly casual work), and by dividing the work between the GMs its even easier (like, one of my GMs loves designing encounters for the tables)-- the real problem is depression and (what is presumably) ADHD, which led to me pumping out most of the content that lasted us months in like a week, and then not being able to do much more than a few events for months... I can still force myself to prep dungeon content for next session which led to my current dungeon an underground fey temple with a neat teleportation ring mechanic that takes you to strange rooms, but even when I haven't GMed in a month, no hex work gets done. I've always had this problem and it sucks. Pathfinder 2e makes it easy to create encounters due to its mountains of monsters and hazards, and easy to work out how much treasure to give, so I can produce content rapidly... but I have to make myself produce any at all. Its also a logistical challenge to keep 3 GMs in the loop, nagging people about stuff we're procrastinating on, and feeling empowered to produce content, especially since I'm not the only one who has trouble sitting down to prep.

This affects other aspects of my life as well, so c'est la vie.

The final challenge is roleplaying, this group has always been mechanically minded, and struggled with heavier roleplay systems (such as Masks: A New Generation) but lately I've been trying to deconstruct some of the frustrations as I read the elusive shift because I know some of them really WANT to roleplay, so I've been trying to recapture what that means and make it something that I can show/teach them. We've had some good roleplay in this game, but its just something on my mind, and im going back to like, the 4e manuals for advice and such, because thats where I learned to teach my college group how to RP, a lot of it is just different personalities though. I also think playing online contributes because we're not riffing on each others energy and body language, and its harder to tell when someone else wants to talk, but that's virtually impossible to solve since my players are all over the country, and even the world these days. So i think there's a lot more tuning out, getting distracted with browsing the internet, getting restless due to sitting in one place with headphones on, or even just being tired because we tend to play after work for many of us-- we do still have great sessions, but they can start to drag much faster.

Some players don't feel compelled to explore and want it to be more rewarding, but I think they're actually reacting to the fact that we've been dealing with two dungeons for the last few months during the slowdown-- dungeons always pay off better than simple exploration, but exploration is how you find the entrances to them, so you have a boom bust cycle accounted for in our treasure math, where you earn little by trawling the map (but can certainly earn some from random events or other odds and ends), but then once you find a dungeon you can brave its dangers to absolutely make bank. These aren't the only high treasure scenarios on offer, but they're the ones that the players have discovered so far. Once these dungeons dry up, they almsot have to explore or stop progressing, so that probably works, its not the first time its happened either.

Does Pathfinder 2e add to this?
I would say so, simply by virtue of the fact that its a high-customization system, its much easier for me to make Pathfinder 2e do this by messing with some wealth tables, than to add all those options to something that's more typically used for this kind of play, plus the game has a lot of simulated elements that make it easy to handle 'weird' situations as they come up-- for example ships and cannons, while we haven't gotten to it yet, is very well supported by the multi-action siege weapon rules from Guns and Gears, or how victory point chases and infiltration made it trivial to run those kinds of scenarios more or less on demand when my players needed to do so for a plan they had. My players also prefer their characters to survive for longer for the sake of continuing their story, and the system is of course more built to support that idea than something like OSE would be due to its trad roots.

It works better than 5e would because magic items are much lesser buyer beware for including in the game in plentiful quantities which feels necessary for a treasure centric experience, and it has better guidelines and balance for everything-- also guns are immensely well supported, a big boon for a pirate game. The level scaling seems like a detriment but in reality, its kind of a boon, not only does it make different types of encounter and such just work out of the box (things like solo bosses, or horde encounters) but it also deepens the sense of the sandbox because there's a real sense of a world thats there waiting to be explored and dovetails beautifully with the wealth scaling to mean being in over your head has a huge payoff-- its a natural incentive to bite off almost but not quite more than you can chew, and our retreat system and modifications reinforce that by allowing for skilled play in selecting and negotiating fights, there's a strong sense of sometimes being chased away only to come back later and have a satisfying revenge. Finally, the rarity system lets us cut a good balance on treasure and spells, where there's a lot of stuff you can just buy with your gold in town at different settlements, but then there's lots of things you can only get by going into deep dark holes in the ground. I even added a neat little mechanic where there's a library guarded by a living rune not far from the key, where players can show up and offer an uncommon spell to the library to get access to the pool of uncommon spells previous pirates have added, allowing them to spread once we've included them even once.

Conclusion
In the next few levels, players will likely be acquiring proper vessels and moving onto a second map designed to go up to level 10, we're having a great time with our Pathfinder 2e West Marches, despite some of the personal challenges we've had with this kind of play. The system is shockingly good for a neo-trad approach to OSR adventure structures, which is pretty much what I was hoping for, so now its a matter of leaning into that and continuing to get my players comfortable embracing their character personalities and ability to swim through the lore of the world and the play space provided by the game. We've also learned that a good retreat system really helps to curtail some of the risks of higher level foes in the system without having to neuter their sense of danger through 5e style non-scaling, and generally lubricates the system by adding counter play to overwhelming situations. Overall, Secrets of Old Pandora, been my own grand experiment and when I'm not depressed and second guessing myself, I'm actually super proud of what I've achieved in creating it.
 
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