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Pathfinder Wargame Experiment

Last night, I broke out the rulebooks for Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) Miniatures and Pathfinder, and tried to mash the two together into some sort of wargame. It didn’t go so well. Today, I’ll be looking at why, and if it’s even possible to get this sort of thing to work.

Wait – What’s Pathfinder?

Pathfinder is, more or less, the third version of 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons (D&D 3e). Some people call it D&D 3.75 because the second version was called 3.5. The whole version numbering thing strikes me as silly, though, because they should have had 3.5 as 3.1, knowing it would require additional revision.

Why? D&D 3e was rushed out the door because Wizards of the Coast (WotC, who had purchased D&D to make 3e) wanted to stamp their name on the D&D product. They wanted people to forget about TSR and welcome the new age of D&D overlords. No, that wasn’t a good idea, but it’s okay. Everything worked out in the end.

As a longtime player of D&D 3e and 3.5e, Pathfinder was a bit of a challenge to get into. The rules changes are many and subtle, but also important. Small things have made huge differences. Paizo had a long history of experience in D&D with the Dragon and Dungeon magazines, and their clever tweaks really show it. Not to mention, they had extensive public playtesting, which is always critical to a solid game framework.

The Basic Idea

The D&D Miniatures game was part of WotC’s campaign to sell… well, miniatures. People often buy miniatures to represent their characters on a battle grid to make battling more like a board game experience, and to make it easier to track what’s happening while the play role-playing games. These new ones from WotC were cheap plastic, but they can pre-painted which was a huge bonus for people who didn’t want to take the time to paint their minis.

The starter pack of D&D minis came with a rulebook for a simplified wargame version of D&D 3e (or possibly 3.5e), along with cards which had stats for each mini. The stats on one side were the full D&D stats, while on the other side the cards had simplified stats for the wargame variant called Skirmish.

Skirmish is an interesting full circle for D&D. The first edition of D&D pulled rules from a wargame called Chainmail, which pitted warbands against each other in a fight to the death. Skirmish has a similar setup. Each player controls a set number of creatures and they fight each other on a battlefield until one side is wiped out.

The idea I had was to take this Skirmish idea but run with it as a full Pathfinder battle. I took two ideas from the Skirmish game: the idea of a commander, and the idea of activating two monsters per turn. For the warbands, I set myself an experience price just like designing an encounter in Pathfinder. With two warbands suitable for a level 10 party to take on, we set to battle. Here’s the first part of that experience.

Why would we do such a thing? Well, for one I wanted to get some Pathfinder in my life. For another, I wanted Katie to learn the rules. I’ll talk about why in a future post.

Did it work? Not at all.

Why It Failed

Pathfinder is a massively complicated game. There’s a reason the rulebook is 600 pages, and “filler” isn’t the answer at all. The system is designed to handle every imaginable situation and to provide players the opportunity to do anything possible with their characters, even going beyond the realm of reality with flight, magic, and extraordinary skills.

This doesn’t work in a one on one wargame. Combat is extremely tedious because monsters are very complicated, especially when they are more powerful. I wanted to experience the breadth of the Pathfinder system, so I went with higher-level creatures. This was partially due to my motivation of reminding myself of the rules, but also to see if the system could handle higher-level monsters in a skirmish experience. Short answer: Nope.

My rustiness with the rules along with Katie hardly knowing them at all when we started led to a lot of looking things up. At a D&D session, this is often a collaborative effort, with one person at the table looking something up while other things can happen. In a one on one situation, everything stops to look up rules.

Even after covering all the rules, the system just wasn’t built for balance. Here’s the second half of the night.

How It Might Work

Although this experiment was a failure, there are a few considerations that–with a lot of time, care, and testing–could result in an interesting, balanced experience.

On the point of balance, Pathfinder creatures vary wildly in power from one level to the next. The game would need to be balanced not only between the two warbands, but also within each warband, in order to keep imbalanced encounters from happening. A creature at level 1 is basically ineffective against one at 5 or greater. So, one fix would be to keep all of the creatures on both sides within 1 – 2 levels of each other.

Level 1 monsters have fewer special abilities, or often none at all. Although lower level monsters would result in less interesting play, the game might work better with them. This, combined with keeping the levels in a reasonable range, means the ideal situation would be creatures in the level range of 1 – 3.

On the other hand, very experienced players or players interested in being a Game Master might have a better chance at using higher-level monsters. They will still want to keep the range small in order to maintain balance.

Traditionally, Pathfinder and other tabletop roleplaying games have a Game Master (GM) who’s responsible for the state of the world. This person tracks things in the environment. That sort of complexity must necessarily be lost in a one on one situation, because it’s too easy and too tempting to fudge things in your favor. This makes me think that even in a skirmish situation, the game would need a GM.

Even with these considerations, I’m not sure this system would work without a major refactoring of the rules. There are far too many variables at play, and the lack of a GM is a serious problem. If you want to play a wargame, I suggest picking up an actual wargame and not trying to modify a tabletop roleplaying game to fit that description.

Still, I’m happy that I ran with the experiment. My goal was to refresh my understanding of the rules, and to help Katie get to grips with them. I think both of these things happened, and I learned a bit about the disparity between tabletop roleplaying and wargaming along the way.