I’ve subscribed to the Pathfinder Adventure Paths since the beginning, and run quite a few of them. One of the things I’ve come to dislike about the experience is the accountancy of combats involved in published modules of all stripes: especially since D&D 3.0 set forth the logic of shooting for four-to-five even-CR encounters per day and 13 such encounters to level, the traditional format of modules has been to pad the content with fights that aren’t particularly interesting. Sure, the module authors try to make them interesting, with all kinds of tricks, but at the end of the day there can only be so many encounters that are relevant to the story arc, and a bunch of things that are in the way.
This wouldn’t be such a problem if I were more willing to retune encounters to be a more interesting fit for my party, instead of speed bumps. Brandes does a lot of this kind of thing: his games feature fewer, more challenging fights. But, to me, the main virtue of purchasing an adventure path is that most of the crunchy work has been done for me, and if I’m going to adjust all the combats it’s not much of a stretch to just doing the whole thing myself.
A few years ago, a Bioware employee stirred up a controversy about her suggestion that story-focused players in CRPGs be able to skip combat as easily as combat-focused players skip through conversations. At the risk of creating the same flavor of offense, I think this kind of thing could work in D&D as easily as in a CRPG. I’ve actually made a stab at something similar before, aimed more at trash encounters, but it’s not exactly a total solution. This week’s system is simpler and thus easier to remember, but more encompassing. It steps away from trying to convert to resources directly, using modifiers that are optional to convert back into D&D stats.
Because, in general, this is for skipping combat all the time. The vast majority of module fights are foregone conclusions, designed to eat up time at the table and amuse a group that wants to shift between roleplay and tactical skirmish wargame. But my theory is that an adventure path could spend way more time on the things I and many of my players like—roleplay, strategy, and investigation—if combats, possibly all combats, were skippable in a way that seems fair.
Each player character can be in one of four states:
- Rested: This is the beginning state, and the state to which most PCs return after plenty of rest. It represents a character with full heath, spells, and abilities.
- Spent: This state indicates that the character has spent a significant portion of resources, in an abstract way. For a spellcaster or other character type with a lot of per-rest abilities, it indicates most of them have been used. For martial characters, it may actually indicate that health is starting to dwindle and the party’s healers are running low on healing. For certain encounters, it may indicate longer-term negative conditions.
- Injured: By this point, the character has expended almost all rest-renewable options, and is getting low on health with no easy way to get it back.
- Incapacitated: A character in this state is out of health or otherwise taken out. In a truly dire fight where the stakes were announced beforehand, the character might be dead.
For each combat, each player rolls a single Fudge/Fate die, and the party totals the results and adds it to their party level (e.g., if you’re 6th level and roll a net +2 on all the dice, you count as 8th level):
- If the result is equal or greater than the encounter level, the party triumphed with no particular issues and only negligible expenditure of resources (these are the fights where everyone wins initiative and nukes the monster before it even gets to go, barely even using any spells).
- If the result is less than the encounter level, the difference is resource drain, as described below.
If the fight used up resources:
- In order of the players whose dice rolled lowest, assess a -1 to the state counter. Do this for one player per point of the difference. For example, if you had a -3 to the encounter level, three PCs expend resources, starting with the ones that rolled -1 (or the ones that rolled 0, if somehow nobody rolled negatives and it still went against you). For ties on the dice, impact the least injured characters first (e.g., if two players rolled -1 and only one needs to expend resources, the one that’s Rested will take the hit if the other one was Spent).
- If the number is greater than the party size, wrap back around until it’s used up.
The GM, with input from the players, then narrates the results of the fight. If it went very well, describe a flawless victory with the players that rolled +1 doing particularly awesome things and the ones that rolled -1s squeaking by as their mistakes didn’t cost the party. For results of -1 to -4 total, describe a more brutal fight, with the players that lost resources getting the worse end of things and players that rolled +1 doing useful things that swung the fight their way. For results of -5 or worse, it might have actually been a loss, with the GM describing how the PCs had to cut and run to escape foes too mighty for them (this is the “it’s only 10 levels above us and we’re rested, the worst that could happen is a couple of us get incapacitated, but we still win” rule; mild negatives are usually a win, but this isn’t an excuse to take stupid risks).
Each character typically recovers by one state level when resting overnight.
If you want to model how much an extra PC or two helps out in modules tuned for four-member parties, ignore one -1 on the dice for each additional party member past four. For example, with five members a -1 -1 0 0 +1 result is read as a 0 instead of a -1 total, but a 0 0 0 +1 +1 is still just a +2.
If you want to create more of a death spiral, assess the following penalties at reduced states:
- Spent: A rolled 0 counts as a -1.
- Injured: A rolled +1 counts as a 0 (and the effects of Spent).
- Incapacitated: Automatically contribute a -1 (don’t roll).
To simulate consumable magic items helping a fight, grant items that can be discharged or consumed to allow rerolls/best-of-two (for an individual player or the whole party) or flat out additional pluses to the party effective level.
To encourage strategic play, grant similar bonuses to magic items for advanced preparation that would make a big difference in the fight if you were actually to play it out.
I haven’t done a deep model of the stats on this, but my simple “lots of random results in a spreadsheet” check indicates that this should work fairly close to the four-to-five encounter math, particularly if you assess penalties for worse states. In particular, what should happen is that (assuming mostly even-level fights) there will be a couple of fights that cause no problems whatsoever, a couple with mild resource drain, and maybe one with a larger hit. After a few fights, even if only a couple of members of the party are Spent, they should start weighing the risk of the next fight rolling low enough to knock someone to Injured (which requires another day to recover), and thinking about camping. In situations where you’ve engineered time pressure, it should make the players very nervous about fighting things they don’t need to fight, and whether they should plow deeper into the state tracker to go ahead and get things done.
And, note again, this is all very abstract. I don’t expect you to try to model this back out to the standard trait system. In fact, it’s possible that you could do this whole thing with extremely minimalist stats that gloss the D&D/Pathfinder tropes (“I am a level X Y of race Z”) without needing to fiddle with the math. Obviously, there are a lot of people for whom fiddling with the math is a huge part of the fun, but this isn’t really for them… all of D&D is normally for them.