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Pathfinder 2E Tell me about PF2E for Sandboxing

Reynard

Legend
I own PF2E and reading it, there's a lot there I think is interesting and I want to give running it a go. Generally speaking though, I don't care for Adventure Path style campaigns. I am okay with adventures that can be inserted into an ongoing game, specifically an "open world" sandbox campaign.

Since in my head Pathfinder is synonymous with Adventure Path, I am worried that PF2E is not going to work for an open world game.

Is that true? If not, tell me about sandboxing in Pathfinder.

Thanks!
 

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The-Magic-Sword

Adventurer
So you have a few major advantages with sand-boxing in Pathfinder 2e, I'm a GM who does only homebrew (with a very little bit of PFS during a con being the only exception) and I've been using the system just about weekly since launch.

1. Exploration mode provides a super good built in procedure for sandbox play, allowing you to crawl large dungeons and areas of wilderness. It sets expectations for tracking time and codifies a system of activities for your players to use (without precluding additional ones) while they move through the environment in minimum increments of 10 minutes. It functions like a marching order where each member of the party gets to take on roles, ranging from searching for traps and secrets, watching out for danger, studying the environment for lore, sneaking, and so forth. It creates a more elaborate game play space than other modern games does with exploration.

2. The encounter guidelines function with a high degree of accuracy, there's no real need to push the players through x number of encounters to exhaust their resources, severe fights are hard even if the party is fully rested (though a prepared party going nova can still mitigate this to an extent.) This means giving the party control of the pacing of their adventures doesn't have major problems. It also provides a relatively simple gauge for how difficult an encounter will actually be, allowing you build them in a modular manner, and track how hard they'll be if they combine/split apart. Adventures and adventuring areas are actually really easy to create, and the monsters in this game are really fun in their own right because they have cool abilities, you also have an ever expanding supply of cool monsters, traps, and magic items to design with.

3. Crafting doesn't break the game open, though its usefulness is game dependent-- its more useful in my game where access to high level settlements, or high level magic items in low level settlements, isn't a given. Magic Items similarly won't break the game open, and with the variant rule, you could easily run high treasure, or low treasure without any problems. Coming from 5e, a flaming sword here is much less problematic for your player to have, which means they feel freer to actually have it. This will make your sandbox much less breakable regardless of what your players do.

4. Downtime mode is nicely fleshed out, letting you engage in activities that earn income, retrain your abilities, and do other stuff (some of which is class or archetype specific) when you're not adventuring, in a well balanced system. This is important in a sandbox where the players might decide to pursue their own goals in town, either waiting for something specific to happen, or to try and gather resources and prepare for their next adventure. There are rules for settlement stat blocks that can flesh out the game world, and subsystems for everything from infiltration to research, they're all based off a mechanic called 'victory points' that make them easy to learn, but each is a little different.

5. Experience is a flat curve, and the game sets out different levels of 'accomplishment' exp that should make it easy to track their progress without having to constantly adjust your amounts to keep up with an inflating target, while still rewarding them when they aren't fighting.

6. Finally, the large array of options, common and uncommon seem nice for a sandbox world because players can be more invested in their own growth. Rarity allows you to designate some things off limits because they wouldn't mesh with your game style, or even just ot hold them back as rewards for engaging with the world-- e.g. to get a certain archetype you have to join a certain organization, or whatever. I'm considering removing bags of holding in an upcoming pirate west marches because I want transporting the treasure, in general, and in safety, to be a present theme, as they plan their voyages to their destination and back to a friendly port on a hexmap.

Then you have one kind of big problem:

1. Level is added to most of the numbers, things more than 4 levels above, or lower than 4 levels below, are numerically outside your players strike zone (the things below will go down like wet paper and not have any real chance of hitting, the things above will nuke them quite unfairly) and those encounter guidelines I mentioned are heavily based on the level of the monsters relative to the party. This does create a scenario where areas of your world will be straight up too dangerous to go to until they level up, or will be too weak to bother with. Depending on your approach this could actually be a good thing, if its well communicated the players can set long term goals to revisit an area or something and make the world feel more alive as it isn't scaling with them (they'll feel growth because it'll let them do things they literally couldn't before) but some people dislike there being any limitation on 'we want to go here and explore this.'
 

Reynard

Legend
Yeah, that list bit was communicated to me by a friend. For a true sandbox it is a real problem. I wonder if there's a fairly simple work around? Can you, say, add or subtract x to the creatures' stats to keep them in "easy" or "deadly" range if they fall outside of either?
 

The-Magic-Sword

Adventurer
Yeah, that list bit was communicated to me by a friend. For a true sandbox it is a real problem. I wonder if there's a fairly simple work around? Can you, say, add or subtract x to the creatures' stats to keep them in "easy" or "deadly" range if they fall outside of either?
There's a couple of options, one is that there's a proficiency without level option that just drops level to 0 on everything, but ive heard that isn't very good (I wonder how it would play with half level.) You can also use the tables in the GMG to translate everything manually (I actually have a plugin in the VTT I use, Foundry, that does this for me) to whatever level you please by finding the number it has at whatever level it is on the table, and then checking the corresponding category for its new level. Finally, you could work around it by accepting it as a reality of the game world that there's some foes you just can't touch until you're ready.
 

kenada

Hero
Supporter
Yeah, that list bit was communicated to me by a friend. For a true sandbox it is a real problem. I wonder if there's a fairly simple work around? Can you, say, add or subtract x to the creatures' stats to keep them in "easy" or "deadly" range if they fall outside of either?
I ran a sandbox hexcrawl in PF2. You can do it core, but the Proficiency without Level variant helps expand the range of monsters. Once you’re in the sweet spot (low- to mid-levels, you’ve got something like 85% to 90% of the bestiary available as a viable option.

@The-Magic-Sword Do you know why people say PwL is bad? I know there is a theoretical issue with summons. It also doesn’t quite cover all DCs and effects, so you have to be mindful of ones that “obviously” have baked some amount of level dependency into them and correct that. However, for the most part, it does what it says on the tin. (The only other criticism I’ve seen is that it doesn’t preserve the default power balance, but that’s the point.)

A while back, I posted on the official forum regarding my experience running a hexcrawl sandbox. For the most part, I’d say it worked pretty well. We’re switching away from PF2, but that’s for other reasons (tl;dr. I want something different than what PF2 offers). There’s also an exploration mode thread here with some good stuff. @!DWolf is doing some interesting things with the VP subsystem.
 

The-Magic-Sword

Adventurer
I ran a sandbox hexcrawl in PF2. You can do it core, but the Proficiency without Level variant helps expand the range of monsters. Once you’re in the sweet spot (low- to mid-levels, you’ve got something like 85% to 90% of the bestiary available as a viable option.

@The-Magic-Sword Do you know why people say PwL is bad? I know there is a theoretical issue with summons. It also doesn’t quite cover all DCs and effects, so you have to be mindful of ones that “obviously” have baked some amount of level dependency into them and correct that. However, for the most part, it does what it says on the tin. (The only other criticism I’ve seen is that it doesn’t preserve the default power balance, but that’s the point.)

A while back, I posted on the official forum regarding my experience running a hexcrawl sandbox. For the most part, I’d say it worked pretty well. We’re switching away from PF2, but that’s for other reasons (tl;dr. I want something different than what PF2 offers). There’s also an exploration mode thread here with some good stuff. @!DWolf is doing some interesting things with the VP subsystem.
Technically I think it really just came down to it breaking the difficulty scaling the way 5e's does. But I'm not sure, just that the person was one of the regulars/mods over the pf2e subreddit so i didnt disbelieve them.

Meanwhile I have players who love the level scaling progression so much i have low key been forbidden from Pwl, ill kerp in mind your experience though.
 

Reynard

Legend
What are the actual play consequences of a 3rd level party accidentally delving a 6th level tomb or an 8th level party exploring the same tomb?
 

kenada

Hero
Supporter
Technically I think it really just came down to it breaking the difficulty scaling the way 5e's does. But I'm not sure, just that the person was one of the regulars/mods over the pf2e subreddit so i didnt disbelieve them.
I tried searching reddit for it but didn’t see anything compelling. Yes, you need to tweak things like Treat Wounds, and Assurance needs tweaked as well. The suggested simple DCs are also crap and should be changed. The encounter-building stuff works fine though.

Well, I did find a thread with some dubious claims regarding how everyone agrees it breaks the game’s math or how it more harshly punishes characters that aren’t optimized. See above for some of the actual issues, but I’d go with people’s actual experiences (which are usually positive) versus theorcrafting.
 

kenada

Hero
Supporter
What are the actual play consequences of a 3rd level party accidentally delving a 6th level tomb or an 8th level party exploring the same tomb?
Assuming that means “designed for 6th level characters”:
  • Core: 3rd level characters will die. 8th level characters will have an easy time.
  • Proficiency without Level: 3rd level characters will probably die. 8th level character will have an easy (but more challenging than core) time.
The primary difference between core and PwL for the 3rd level party is that some of the fights are technically doable. However, you’re still looking at a deadly- to extreme-threat for the 3rd level party for what are just a moderate-threat or easier for the 6th level party.
 

The-Magic-Sword

Adventurer
I tried searching reddit for it but didn’t see anything compelling. Yes, you need to tweak things like Treat Wounds, and Assurance needs tweaked as well. The suggested simple DCs are also crap and should be changed. The encounter-building stuff works fine though.

Well, I did find a thread with some dubious claims regarding how everyone agrees it breaks the game’s math or how it more harshly punishes characters that aren’t optimized. See above for some of the actual issues, but I’d go with people’s actual experiences (which are usually positive) versus theorcrafting.
Fair, I'll try and make a point to try it for myself sometime, it would solve the only remaining issue for my game style.
 

The-Magic-Sword

Adventurer
I tried searching reddit for it but didn’t see anything compelling. Yes, you need to tweak things like Treat Wounds, and Assurance needs tweaked as well. The suggested simple DCs are also crap and should be changed. The encounter-building stuff works fine though.

Well, I did find a thread with some dubious claims regarding how everyone agrees it breaks the game’s math or how it more harshly punishes characters that aren’t optimized. See above for some of the actual issues, but I’d go with people’s actual experiences (which are usually positive) versus theorcrafting.
here was the post where they discussed their experience with it incidentally
 

kenada

Hero
Supporter
Thanks. I searched the PF2 subreddit but not the PF one. That’s a lot more reasonable, and it’s based on actual experience.

I think some of his problems were due to expectations, and he alluded to that. Lower level creatures are supposed to be more dangerous, so it makes sense they would not go down as easy to a fireball. The boss discussion is more interesting.

As I understand it, the boss did more damage because of its higher level and was suitably dangerous, but it also had commensurately more hit points, which dragged down the pacing of the fight. I can see how some groups would prefer that for cinematic fights, but it’s legitimately a problem.

I’ve done +4 fights against a single creature but not +5. I thought the pacing felt okay, but I gave up on the core progression early in my campaign, so I have no feel for whether that would feel off. I also admit I take a (probably) anachronistic view towards combat, so that colors my perception as well.
 

kenada

Hero
Supporter
Fair, I'll try and make a point to try it for myself sometime, it would solve the only remaining issue for my game style.
I think you’re being reasonable, and the power scaling is a fair preference to have. It might be worth trying, but I expect you’ll run into similar problems to the post you linked.
 

Nilbog

Snotling Herder
There's a couple of options, one is that there's a proficiency without level option that just drops level to 0 on everything, but ive heard that isn't very good (I wonder how it would play with half level.) You can also use the tables in the GMG to translate everything manually (I actually have a plugin in the VTT I use, Foundry, that does this for me) to whatever level you please by finding the number it has at whatever level it is on the table, and then checking the corresponding category for its new level. Finally, you could work around it by accepting it as a reality of the game world that there's some foes you just can't touch until you're ready.

May I ask what plugin it is you use? I use foundry vtt and would be interested in this functionality

Thank you 😊
 



Assuming that means “designed for 6th level characters”:
  • Core: 3rd level characters will die. 8th level characters will have an easy time.
  • Proficiency without Level: 3rd level characters will probably die. 8th level character will have an easy (but more challenging than core) time.
The primary difference between core and PwL for the 3rd level party is that some of the fights are technically doable. However, you’re still looking at a deadly- to extreme-threat for the 3rd level party for what are just a moderate-threat or easier for the 6th level party.

Yeah.

I mean, the reality is that once you have a system where the levels actually provide serious differences in ability, you just can't sit here and expect things to go well if the differential gets at all large. The only reason a three level difference in expected wasn't automatically a killer in D&D3 (or probably PF1e) was that there was so much ability to cook the books in character builds that a given character might well be significantly more powerful that was assumed for their level. If you were actually up against what the game assumed was a typical set of 3rd level characters, the result was almost certainly going to be the same there, too; it just that the maths on games like D&D 4e and PF 2e are tight enough the gap between an average character and a strongly constructed one are no where near as profound as they could be in 3e era D&D or its direct derivatives.

I mean, honestly, I'm not sure quite how well things would go for encounters actually put together for 6th level OD&D characters would go for 3rd level ones; just the difference in the spellcasters having access to third level spells as compared to only 2nd level ones doesn't make me sanguine about it. I do know back in my OD&D days, that the only reason random encounters in the wilderness were not death sentences sometimes was that we habitually played with two character per player, so a lot of random encounters were actually pretty undertuned for the party, and thus some of the bigger ones were ones were either manageable, or possible to disengage from without TPKs at least.
 

Reynard

Legend
The power curve is earlier editions wasn't really as steep. Orcs remained worthwhile foes for quite a while. 5E tried to flatten that curve a little compared to 3.x, so I guess I kind of assumed PF2 would do the same.

There isn't anything inherently wrong with having to sign post the regions of whatever, but it seems like you would end up with a lot of unusable content in a sandbox once the party out levels the Swamp of Doom or whatever.
 

kenada

Hero
Supporter
It wasn’t an accident. Paizo wants high-level adventurers to be super heroes compared to their lower-level foes. If a 10th level swordsman is waylaid by a group of 1st level bandits, they should stand absolutely no chance. It’s the aesthetic they want for their adventures. You’re not supposed to be fighting those weaker creatures. You’re supposed to be taking on even bigger threats as you advance in level (with destroying the occasional mob of lower-level enemies being a reminder of how strong you are now).

Proficiency without Level flattens that curve. Lower-level enemies stay threats for longer. That was the “problem” in the link shared above. In core, a wizard could obliterate a group of lower-level creatures with a fireball, but Proficiency without Level helped make them a little more likely to survive.

The reality is that PF2 isn’t designed for sandbox play out of the box. If you look at what Paizo writes about in the CRB and the GMG, there’s an assumption that you’re doing story-based campaigns. Even when you’re hexploring, there’s still an underlying story. You’ve got your encounters, and what the GMG calls a “sandbox” is just letting the PCs decide how they go about doing them. If you want to do a traditional sandbox (where PCs have agency, and you have the world react to their exercising it), then you’ll need to make some adjustments and be mindful of what the system assumes.

Here are some things that come to mind:
  • Proficiency without Level helps tamp down the power curve.
  • Consider having multiple characters per player or multiple parties. That allows lower-level characters to continue delving into those Swamps of Doom while higher-level ones push into new frontiers.
  • Have new problems crop up when the PCs aren’t around for a while. If there’s no one there to rein in the goblins, maybe they eventually band together and procure combat ogres, so now you need those higher-level PCs back to deal with the problem.
  • Allow areas to be depleted or cleared. @!DWolf discusses this a bit in the exploration thread linked above with his island-based exploration game.
  • Adjust the XP curve. I increased the XP it took to gain levels at higher levels, so PCs naturally slowed down advancement.
  • Impose a level cap. You could do this across your setting (like I did). You could also impose a cap that PCs can break through by accomplishing or finding something in a given region.
Admittedly, the last idea (level cap unlocks) is a bit game-y and has metaphysical implications for a setting. It could also start feeling rote if the PCs have to do it several times over the course of a campaign (like climbing towers to survey an area in an open world video game), so maybe only do it once or twice (if at all).
 

The power curve is earlier editions wasn't really as steep. Orcs remained worthwhile foes for quite a while. 5E tried to flatten that curve a little compared to 3.x, so I guess I kind of assumed PF2 would do the same.

It may not have been, but it was still steep enough. As I said, in particular the difference between a third level spellcaster and a sixth level one could be pretty dramatic in practice.
 

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