My experiences GMing Age of Ashes thus far

Age of Ashes

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I have been running Age of Ashes #1: Hellknight Hill. The group has completed its second session. The player characters are currently 3rd level, having cleared out all three wings of the Citadel Altaerein vaults.

The party is a maestro bard, a flickmace paladin champion, a guisarme Brutish Shove fighter, a crossbow Precision ranger. This is a reasonably optimal party. Being a maestro is great for Lingering Composition for long-lasting offensive buffs; the bard also took an ancestry feat for two-target cantrip electricity damage, which is really quite a good spell to toss out at-will, though it cannot be made nonlethal. The flickmace paladin champion restricts enemy options with reach Ranged Retribution, while the guisarme Brutish Shove fighter further locks down enemies with Attack of Opportunity; working together, they really hamper enemies' tactical choices. The crossbow Precision ranger took voluntary flaws to Strength and Charisma, so between Intelligence 14, Wisdom 16, all knowledge skills trained, and Monster Hunter, they are the party's big brain.

The party has prioritized Wisdom over Constitution, so they have good initiative. As part of pre-agreed standard operating procedures, the party makes extensive use of the Scout exploration activity, further pushing up initiative. Between battles, Medicine and champion Focus Points keep the party's hit points topped off.

We play for 6 to 6.5 hours. We play entirely via text and virtual tabletop. I pre-type plenty of material, even NPC banter, and I speed along the dungeon crawl process as quickly as I can, because I never really liked dungeon-crawling anyway; thus, sessions go by relatively quickly. During the first session, nobody spent any Hero Points. During the second session, I handed out a total of 8 Hero Points, on top of the starter pack. In future sessions, I will hand out fewer.

I am the GM who ran roughly two dozen iterations of playtest adventures, and every single one of them concluded in a TPK; in a few cases, there were even multiple TPKs in one session. I run my combats brutally and in a wargame-like fashion, and I have no compunctions whatsoever against focus-firing down PCs. I tend towards mechanical transparency; all combatants on both sides are aware of one another's special senses, AC, saving throws, Hit Points, Speeds, Attack of Opportunity capacities, and similar values, though PCs still need to discover NPC/monster special abilities via Recall Knowledge.

Three out of four players are long-time veterans of my playtest adventures, and are thus masochists who know my GMing style and the basics of 2e fairly well. The fourth player has no prior 2e experience, but is generally good with grid-based tactics, and likewise knows my GMIng style quite well.

I do not like talking about the narrative or roleplaying side of my playthroughs, with a few exceptions, because they are very much down to personal taste. I doubt that many players would be enthused by my "absolutely everyone is cute, friendly, and whimsical, even the evil mooks" NPC style, or my cutesy anime aesthetic, for example.

Let us get this out of the way. I have gone over other adventures extensively: Cult of Cinders, Fall of Plaguestone, and the first batch of Pathfinder Society scenarios. I think that all of them are fairly good. Hellknight Hill, in my opinion, is a marked step down from all of the other adventures. It is sloppily-written. The authors were clearly struggling at several points, because it was written mid-2e-development. Many plot points, NPC actions, and contrivances either are nonsensical, or require the great majority of the NPCs to be straight-up idiots (even by Paizo adventure path standards); the players have openly noted this as well. The out-of-the-box encounter design is very boring, and unlike Pathfinder Society scenarios, there is no encounters-per-day guideline, so there is no real impetus for daily resource management when the party can rest at-will. It is a schlocky dungeon crawl through and through.

The first session covered 1st-level gameplay, clearing out the first level of Citadel Altaerein. The group took zero damage through this whole session, burned zero spell slots, and spent zero consumables. During the first encounter, the fire, in my policy of transparency, I informed my players of the full mechanics of the encounter. As it turns out, the fire hazard is only dangerous if the players have the mechanics obfuscated from them, because once they know how the scene actually works mechanically, the PCs can simply delegate many tasks to NPCs. The fire rolled low initiative, the PCs delegated many tasks to NPCs, and so the fire was gone and all 40 townsfolk were rescued before the fire's turn on round #4.

After watching Alak Stagram slay some imps single-handedly while taking zero damage, the PCs picked up their very own locked-at-2nd GMPC. The citadel romp was fairly humdrum. The group blazed through virtually every encounter. As per the adventure's suggestion given Alak's presence, I combined the giant bat and the skeletons, and the warg and the graveshells. The PCs knocked out every single monster, except for the skeletons, and except for the giant bat, which was accidentally killed by a lethal attack from a crossbow Precision critical hit (spawning a funposty fake meme image).

The Calmont hostage scene was fairly silly. One DC 16 Intimidation check is all it takes to get Calmont to surrender, strangely enough, and that is precisely what the PCs succeeded at. Even if the PCs had failed that check and decided to rush Calmont, the adventure prescribes Calmont fumbling with the knife; it is a bit silly if PCs need no finesse in hostage situations, because they can count on the hostage-taker fumbling with their weapon.

The PCs hit 2nd level after attending to the warg puppies. The session ended then.

Come the second session, I went off-script a little. I was dissatisfied with the boring, "some trash enemies in a room attack the party" encounters, and the players were eager to enlist some NPCs into the party, so I ramped up encounter difficulty. I think this made for a better session overall. It may not have been particularly faithful to the adventure, but it was a more engaging set of tactical challenges.

For starters, I had the warg mother return to her babies right then and there, and I had her be an elite winter wolf, a 6th-level creature. They had an extensive back-and-forth discussion debating the morals and ethics of the party taking her babies. Calmont joined in here, so it was the four PCs, Alak, and Calmont versus the winter wolf. Thanks to flanking and decent positioning, the elite winter wolf had a hard time getting off a breath against more than two targets. The battle ended early into the second round, with only the bard having taken any damage, a solid 24. The PCs merely knocked out the elite winter wolf, so that they can unite the male warg, the mighty mother, and the two puppies all together for counseling in Breachill.

The next fight was against the darkvisionless emperor birds in a pitch-black room, as per James Jacobs' confirmation. The party knocked out the birds in the first round. Come the second round, the elite soulbound doll and the gelatinous cube rolled initiative and joined the fray. The party took out the elite soulbound doll before it could act. The gelatinous cube proved more troublesome, and its Engulf dealt 6 damage each to the champion and the fighter, but it went down early into the third round. That was the only damage the party took.

After punching some sense into Pib and then healing the kobold up with Medicine and champion Focus Points, the party enlisted Pib and Zarf to join them, alongside Alak and Calmont. Then I had Team Cinderclaw rush the war room for a grand battle. The first wave was three boggard warriors and two boggard scouts. Two-target electrical cantrips from the bard and the two kobold dragon mages proved terribly effective against low-Reflex boggards. The party knocked out all three boggard warriors and one boggard scout in the first round, and nobody was ever frightened by the croaks at any point, in part thanks to the maestro bard's composition spells. The second wave, arriving at the start of round #2 and rolling initiative then, was comprised of the five charau-ka. The party knocked out the remaining boggard scout and four charau-ka by the end of the second round, and knocked out the fifth early into the third round. The party took zero damage during this fight, quite surprisingly.

By this point, the party has spent zero spell slots (not even the kobold dragon mages spent spell slots) and zero consumables. During the second session, they captured the two birds and all ten of the Cinderclaws, out of some sense of pacifism.

The grizzly bear, the party calmed with a Nature check. The undead Hellknights, the party circumvented at Alak Stagram's insistence on using the cloth insignias recovered earlier. And that was that. It was not quite in the adventure, but I spent a fair bit of time roleplaying out interactions with the sophont, undead Hellknights; it is a shame that the adventure never brings that up as a possibility. I had the undead Hellknights banter about afterlives in Hell and such, what kind of undead the party would want to be, the silly loophole of the insignias, and similar topics.

The party is ready to continue on to 3rd level in the exact same adventuring day. Alak, Calmont, Pib, and Zarf are still tagging along, so I will have to combine together encounters in Guardian's Way and the Goblinblood Caves into quite the grand rumble.

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To expound on my thoughts on the hostage situation, a scene like that is a good way to instill into players the lesson that actions have consequences, and that they should not just aggressively rush into every situation.

It is why the narrative of Detroit: Become Human, for example, starts with a hostage situation. It shows the player that actions have consequences, and when innocent lives are on the line, foolhardy action can cost a life. Conversely, here in Hellknight Hill, all the party really needs to do to defuse the entire situation is immediately bully the hostage-taker with a single DC 16 Intimidation check. Similarly, if the party blindly rushes the hostage-taker, said hostage-taker winds up fumbling with their weapon... because the hostage-taker was stupid enough to go for the hostage's ears rather than, say, the throat.

This does a poor job of showing players that actions have consequences, and it does an even worse job of teaching players to not just aggressively rush into everything. Consider the alternative: if the players goof up, the hostage dies. In-universe, it is a great loss and a teaching moment for the newbie party. From a metagame perspective, another goblin steps in for exposition and relays the exact same information anyway, if more mournfully.

One player of mine took great issue on how this scene was framed and executed by the adventure.

The hostage-taker is so incompetent, by the way, that the goblins were about to capitulate to his demands, but said hostage-taker talked too fast, thus preventing the goblins from getting a word in. That is ridiculous, and it is not even the worst case of NPC incompetence in the adventure.

Silver Crusade

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Pathfinder Adventure Path Subscriber

What, no multiple TPKs?

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Revised math is a hell of a drug.

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I have a status update. We played for four hours today; I handed out only 4 Hero Points this time, in addition to the baseline. The party reached 4th level. The party is a gnome maestro bard, a half-elf human flickmace paladin champion, a half-elf human guisarme fighter, and a half-elf human crossbow Precision ranger. We took backgrounds from the core rulebook and the Lost Omens World Guide, but we modified them to be more location-agnostic, like Senghor Sailor into a variant sailor, Rostland Partisan into just plain partisan, and Inlander into a different sort of inlander.

I do not like exploration mode and the exploration activities at all. It is too clunky for my GMing style, and I cannot process Investigate and Search being separate. I have never previously run any dungeon crawl adventures in my multiple years of GMing, because I hate dungeon crawls, and Hellknight Hill has done nothing to warm me up to them. Exploration mode seems more suited to GMs who like to adjudicate the nitty-gritty of dungeon crawl movement and positioning, but I am not one of those GMs.

Before running this adventure path, I was advised by several others across various forums and Discord servers that it technically would not be breaking RAW to mostly gloss over exploration mode. The advice said that it would be okay to assume that the party is laboriously examining everything and repeatedly rolling Seek actions, while using Avoid Notice, Defend, and Scout whenever entering a new room. So that is what I have been doing: glossing it all over, save for those three exploration activities that affect the start of combat.

I still call for Recall Knowledge whenever it comes up in the adventure; I state the DC and let anyone so willing make the relevant skill check. I do not like secret rolls, so all rolls are out in the open, as the core rulebook suggests is possible. I do not like critical failures on Recall Knowledge either, because I am not good at coming up with plausible yet deceptive lore, and all rolls are out in the open anyway; I just come up with some absurdly incorrect factoid, and the players play along with their characters having a staunch belief in the over-the-top misinformation, even if the other PCs succeed and gain the correct knowledge. I really wish there was a variant rule on how to handle critical failures on Recall Knowledge.

The party made it out into the basement of the Pickled Ear. The bard used Multifarious Muse Versatile Performance and expert Performance to critically succeed on the Diplomacy (Make an Impression) check on Roxie. Thus, I had Roxie be quite cooperative, willing to store the party's loot, and eager to take her staff and several townsfolk over to Citadel Altaerein to clean things up and pick up all of the restrained prisoners.

Over at the Reliant Book Company, the party's ranger, the Thievery-bot, was once against quite dissatisfied with the exhausting rules for Thievery rolls to Pick a Lock and Disable Device. There really needs to be a more convenient way of automating these banal rolls instead of constantly rolling, breaking lockpicks, repairing lockpicks, and trying again repeatedly. They actually struggled with this exact problem during the first and second sessions, too; does anyone really find it entertaining to repeatedly roll dice until a lock pops open? I copied and pasted a long and pre-typed wall of text detailing the dark secret of Breachill, and had Alak Stagram comment that Lamond Breachton did not seem so bad, and that this was not all that dark or mind-blowing a secret. The players and the PCs seemed to agree, so the revelation was lukewarm.

Much more vibrantly received was me adding in details from elsewhere. I figured that Voz Lirayne's ambitions of building a dark and edgy Norgorberite school and guild for assassins and necromancers would never come out in an interrogation, so I had Voz Lirayne leave behind notes detailing her life dream. I went into extensive detail on just how passionate she was about this, and how she has already thought out everything from classroom design, to (very cute) uniform designs for teachers and students alike, to curricula, to recruitment processes for faculty and pupils, to procedures for teaching magical rituals and assassination techniques. The notes did have Voz realize how illegal it would have been, and how funding would be nigh-impossible.

The players and their characters found this "hilariously over-the-top," because come on, it is. This is a villain who really, really wants to build a school and guild for assassins and necromancers in Breachill... simply because it would be so dark, edgy, and awesome. So there has been a thought in the party to entertain and support Voz's deepest passion in as legal a manner as possible, just to see how she would react.

Onwards to Guardian's Way. The relevant Society checks triggered the usual round of over-the-top misinformation from critical failures on Recall Knowledge, but the ranger hit every relevant Society check. Now, by this point, the party has not rested since the start of the adventure path. The champion, the fighter, and the ranger all have +1 weapons. Alak Stagram has a +1 halberd, Calmont has a +1 rapier and doubling rings, and Pib and Zarf are content to simply spam their two-target electrical cantrip. Thus, with so many GMPCs tagging along, because the players seem to like it, I had to combine encounters together.

Since the party has had such an easy time so far, I had Guardian's Way be a very brutal encounter, rather than the easy-peasy fight it normally is. Four Bloody Blades mercenaries on the upper level of the central tower (30 feet off the ground), and Dmiri Yoltosha and another Bloody Blade mercenary on the lower level (20 feet off the ground), all with their shortbows out. The rope ladders start the battle pulled up. Come the start of the second round, reinforcements would appear by the side of the old supply shack: Voz Lirayne, two skeletal champions, and Voz's new friends, a tixitog and a spider swarm.

This would be a completely mean battle, because Team Pacifist would commit to climbing the tower, while leaving the back-row (the bard, the ranger, Pib, and Zarf) on the ground. The second wave would then pop out and rush those still on the ground. That is what I planned for, what I expected to happen, and what really did happen. This custom creation of mine was by far the most difficult and brutal battle so far. And it was all because of the oppressive rules for mid-combat Climbing, and drawing weapons. The players really, really did not like these rules and found them oppressive and frustrating.

It takes an action to sheathe a weapon. It takes an action to draw a weapon. It takes an action and two free hands to Climb. If someone likes to occupy both hands in combat, and if someone lacks Combat Climber, then they are screwed if they want to climb mid-combat. On top of that, it is DC 10 to climb a ladder, as per page 242, a success moves most PCs only 5 feet, and a critical success moves most PCs only 10 feet. Essentially, a mid-combat Climb is horrifically stacked against any character who has not specifically built their character to be good at mid-combat Climbing.

The fight started off with the bard and the fighter using a Mage Hand cantrip to pull down the rope ladders. Then the melee combatants started climbing. It was really very frustrating for them. The bard also used Inspire Courage and Lingering Composition. Unfortunately, the Bloody Blades were able to focus-fire the bard down using their Hunted Shot and Precision; I could not find any rule against the composition spells ending, so they persisted. The bard spent the rest of the fight unconscious and doing nothing; the rules for a heroic recovery are a complete wash, because they only help a character avoid dying, and do nothing to get a character actually back into the fight. After all, the Twitch stream errata stipulates that a heroic recovery sets a character back to 0 Hit Points, which means they cannot actually regain consciousness with a heroic recovery alone. I really wish that the errata said otherwise, because this just is not very fun.

The rest of the fight was a huge mess. The champion had a hard time using Champion's Reaction, because champions really struggle in wide set piece battles; both the enemy and the ally need to be within 15 feet. Attack of Opportunity proved very important for locking down enemy options; the fighter and Alak both had reach polearms out, and the skeletal champions were likewise using lances for Attack of Opportunity. It is a very potent ability that can really shut down many options, and Voz was unable to do much due to being threatened by Attacks of Opportunity. All in all, thanks to good positioning, flanking, Electric Arc spam from Pib and Zarf, and a little luck, the party was able to nonlethally knock out every single enemy, save for the two skeletal champions, who were destroyed.

As mentioned, the bard was knocked unconscious in the first round. The fighter took 12 damage from Hunted Shot arrows, the champion took 12 damage from a tixitog bite, and Alak and Calmont each took 10 damage from falling as they hopped down from the 20-foot-high lower platform just to rejoin the fight on the ground. They did ultimately win, all while expending no spell slots and no consumables. They will be continuing the adventuring day.

The last session's three difficult battles, in tight and enclosed spaces, were enjoyable. This one was really not that good. It was frustrating. I am a 4e DM at heart, and I like set piece battles in wide, open spaces, with all kinds of interesting terrain and even three-dimensionality. Pathfinder 2e seems to handle such combats... poorly. Entire classes (i.e. champion) get screwed over by wide, open spaces. Then we have rules like Climb, drawing, and sheathing; they are grueling and unfun for any melee weapon combatants who dare to Climb terrain mid-combat while not being specifically specced to do so. Ladders being a DC 10 Climb is absurd. The point here is not "Hellknight Hill has unfun encounters," because this was my own creation; the point is "Pathfinder 2e causes some characters to get seriously screwed in wide, set piece maps, and the mid-combat Climb rules are gruesome."

This effectively custom fight would have gone so much smoother for the party if they had just stayed on the ground, and refused to interface with the Climb rules. Then maybe the champion could have healed the bard, and ranged attacks and Electric Arc spam could have taken out the mercenaries on the tower. To clarify, the players and I only really processed just how bad the Climb rules were only once they had committed to it. It has been a while since we played together, and we are all new to this full release, so there are bound to be bad decisions on both sides of the table.

The party is 4th level now. Since the living enemies at Guardian's Way were all knocked out, the party has some prisoners on hand. My plan for the upcoming battle is for me to contrive that Malarunk, the two boggard scouts, the two charau-kas, the greater barghest, and the six hunting spiders have all teamed up. I will be tossing them in a single wave at the party, Alak, Calmont, Pib, and Zarf, in a most definitely extreme-difficulty combat. Who knows; maybe the spellcasters might even expend some spell slots.

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Hellknight Hill comes across as the Pathfinder 2e equivalent of 4e's Keep on the Shadowfell or 5e's Hoard of the Dragon Queen: on-release adventures that suffer from being rushed, from the writers not having the actual rules on hand, and from all the top-caliber writers being too busy ensuring that the core rulebook is ready.

I am already refusing to run its combat encounters, in favor of stress-testing the combat system with my own fights using the same preexisting enemies. I think the adventure has been more enjoyable for it, though it does reveal other issues, such as Climb.

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I think that adventure paths are a decent way to grasp what Paizo is trying to go for, narratively and mechanically.

At this rate, since I am mostly combining together encounters in Hellknight Hill, because I do not like the combat encounters, I am using the adventure mostly for the narrative, the maps, and the NPCs... which are not exactly stellar. I just do not like the narrative and the NPCs; everything is simply so full of plot holes and NPC incompetence. It is why I have been running this adventure as a Saturday morning cartoon, and why the bad guys have been too gosh-darned adorable to kill off rather than capture.

I am excited for the next adventure, though, I really am.

Also, as I had fully suspected, gameplay at 1st level, and, to a lesser extent, 2nd level, is very crude. There is no impetus for any tactics more in-depth than bashing each enemy's hit points down to 0.

I actually find the biggest idiots of the module being Calmont (well it is his destiny XD) and Charu'Kas in the basement.
Malarunk and Voz really need little tweaks to become serious threats and clever NPCs. Voz is actually a rather complex character if you think about it. She is rather young and talanted necromancer who managed to establish lots of useful contacts within the shadow world of Golarion, but still dreaming about making a school.
Malarunk is not flashed out and you can make him whatever you want which I find also good enough. In my version he is much more competent and the only thing holding him from rampaging across Breachill is Ralldar the Bargheist blocking his way to outside.These two may even ally with each other if GM needs some epic conflict versus PCs. Greater Bargheist helping Dahak Cultists is no joke and has great potential.

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Most of the NPCs in this adventure are idiots, yes. Voz is not so much stupid as she is very over-the-top and adorable in her edgy life ambitions.

Now, super-duper spoilers.

Some of you might be wondering just how anime my game is. Well, thus far, it has been the kind of game wherein just about every PC, NPC, and even sophont monster is a cute anime girl. Thus, I am fully committing to the following. 0/Mysterious_Halfling_Girl.png 6/Perhaps_Not_a_Halfling_After_All.png 1/Imprisoned_Avatar_of_Dragon_God_of_Destruction_Dahak.png

The imprisoned avatar of the dragon god of destruction, Dahak, will be sticking around in the Huntergate waystation as a source of banter, in harmless form. I may even have them capable of harmlessly manifesting elsewhere, mostly for banter's sake. I am running that sort of game, yes.

To clarify some of my frustrations with Climb, you have to bear in mind that climbing requires two free hands, and you need to initiate the Climb action already touching base with, say, a ladder. I do not think it is possible to "integrate" a Climb into a Stride. Add that to the two free hands necessary short of Combat Climber, the 5 feet on a success or 10 on a critical success, the core rulebook DCs giving ladders DC 10, and the actions needed just to sheathe and draw weapons... and it adds up into an ugly mess.

I was under the impression that the DC adjustments for things like "very easy" were for level-based DCs, not for simple DCs.

If they do apply to simple DCs as well, then the simple DCs are not as simple as they seem, because they have all kinds of modifiers attached to them.

Whatever the case, if I flip open my core rulebook and I fail to see a straight-up DC listed for a basic ladder under regular circumstances in the table that supposedly lists sample DCs, then I do not find this very user-friendly.

The drawing and sheathing rules are also very punishing on the action economy, especially on anyone who dares to carry around two weapons, or a sword and a shield.

To me a ladder would not even be a climbing role - I always used ladders as difficult Terrain. But I do agree that normally you should Need two Hands to climb.

The 5/10 feet climb Speed is what sounds too harsh.

Anyway, thank you for your detailed Feedback and Reports.

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I would also like to add that handling loot identification is a huge pain, unless someone has Quick Identification and/or Assurance in an Identify Magic skill. Identifying an item takes 10 minutes, and there are critical failures, so there is no way to simply automate it. The player has to manually roll to identify everything, in case a critical failure comes up, and even a regular failure delays identification for one day. It is really, really dull to roll dice dozens of times after a dungeon crawl just to automate the arduous process of item identification, and the critical failures are just awful.

Dark Archive

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I'm kinda confused here since it seems you changed lots of stuff tone wise plus you don't like dungeons in general apparently .-.

Like, you at same time criticize stuff you didn't like, but also changed stuff, so I have bit hard time grasping what stuff was from original adventure and what wasn't since I'm not reading whole book again just to cross reference with this thread.

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The narrative, the plot points, and the NPCs are more or less the same. I cannot change those as easily, so I go with what is written in the book, however flimsy the plotline and however incompetent the NPCs may be.

Sometimes, I do make narrative alterations, and I usually note when I have applied such things.

I really do not like the combat encounters of this book. After the first session, I started to ramp up the combat difficulty considerably.

I give my overviews based on an assumption that the reader has already familiarized themselves with the adventure.

Dark Archive

Hmm, oki so adventure is mostly same, but more moe anime(not honestly that unusual, we joke about 3.5 being shonen anime system lots of time) and difficulty increased?

Ah wait, did you mean combining encounters in dungeon?

I'm pretty sure thats normal thing to do in dungeons unless characters in them have good enough reason to not join combat in other rooms. Thats pretty much normal way for me to run dungeons if characters succeed at perception check to hear combat, only reason they don't join is if adventure gives them reason to not to.(or if it makes tactically more sense to stay still)

Grand Lodge

Pathfinder Adventure, Rulebook Subscriber; Pathfinder Battles Case Subscriber

Yeah, that's just standard GM practice to adjust difficulty. My team was getting wrecked by wererats due to DR, so the GM held the boss back rather than have him rush in with his flunkies.

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I never adjust encounters to be on the easier side. I do not run dungeon crawl adventures for the most part; I never liked them, and I still do not like them. I am more of a "set piece battles exclusively" person, which is why I really struggle with a dungeon crawl adventure like Hellknight Hill.

There is another matter I would like to gather opinions on. Essentially, I am running a Saturday morning cartoon here. The heroes never try to deliberately kill anyone, and it is very rare for someone to die on screen. Everyone is friendly and endearing to some respect, everyone is cute, and almost nobody is worth killing rather than capturing. This would work out well if I was running, say, D&D 4e, my preferred game, where anything that drops an enemy to 0 damage can simply knock out that enemy, but I am not running 4e.

Unfortunately, Pathfinder 2e has limited options for knocking people out nonlethally. Most of the time, it requires a -2 penalty to the attack roll declared beforehand, which is a serious drop in hit chance and critical hit chance. It feels bad for the PCs to constantly be taking a -2 penalty to attack rolls, because they are worried about accidentally rolling a critical hit and killing someone. The bard has even fewer options for nonlethal takedowns.

All throughout 1st to 3rd level gameplay, the PCs have successfully knocked out every single enemy in Hellknight Hill that could be knocked out, every mook, every bad guy, every animal, except for a giant bat that was accidentally killed by a lethal crossbow Precision critical hit. For context, for the finale of book #1, since the party is willingly bringing along many GMPCs, I am supercharging the final battle by smashing together all of the encounters for 4th level. Afterwards, the GMPCs will leave, and it is back to mostly by-the-book encounters.

I see four solutions here. Which of these seems like the best solution?

A. The group carries onwards with their lethal damage weapons. If they want to take the high road and keep on capturing enemies, they will just have to suck up the -2 penalty to attack rolls. This will increase encounter difficulty, and perhaps that is a good thing if, during book #2 onwards, I will be running encounters mostly by-the-book.

B. I allow the champion and the fighter to instantly retrain into monks (ideally of differing builds, like one a Mountain Stance monk while the other a Tiger or Wolf Stance monk). The ranger is still sucking up a -2 attack penalty, though, and the bard still has meager nonlethal options.

C. "At the GM’s discretion, villains, powerful monsters, special NPCs, and enemies with special abilities that are likely to bring them back to the fight (like ferocity, regeneration, or healing magic) can use these rules as well." I interpret this to mean that all NPCs are special and worth saving. All NPCs and monsters use the PC dying rules, which means that they can be knocked out with lethal damage, and simply stabilized later. It may be a pain to keep track of their dying conditions, however.

D. I accept that my Saturday morning cartoon GMing style is fundamentally at odds with Pathfinder 2e, and implement a house rule. Whenever a PC drops an enemy to 0 hit points, the PC can choose to nonlethally subdue that enemy. Nonlethal damage no longer exists; anything that would have dealt nonlethal damage by default either deals 1 more damage per weapon die, or 1 more damage per spell level.

Another thing I could do is employ option A or B, but have there be actual, tangible benefits to knocking out all of these enemies. It is doing things the hard way and out of a sense of compassion and redemption, so there could be rewards for taking the high road.

Shadow Lodge

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Colette Brunel wrote:
I never adjust encounters to be on the easier side.

That seems needlessly absolute.

Dark Archive

It is completely okay for you to decide that character's don't instantly die at 0 hp and can be saved before bleeding out.

You could also either give them easy access to non lethal weapons or magic rune that turns damage into non lethal(merciful rune isn't currently yet in 2e, but nothing prevents you into homebrewing it early). The "decide upon knock out whether its lethal or non lethal" is also valid house rule.

Anyhoo, if yer preference is set piece battles to dungeon battles, two ways you could handle dungeons: You could either think dungeon as a location with multiple set pieces inside OR treat the dungeon as a single set piece. Kinda like Rise of the Runelord's final dungeon which isn't treated as dungeon crawl, but as one giant dynamic encounter. It might require bit of adjustation though.

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Generally, what I have been doing is combining encounters together, which more or less reduces dungeons to small sequences of set piece battles. I generally prefer it that way, but even then, it is still a bit stilted, because the adventure clearly was not designed for such a thing.

Age of Ashes, for me, runs head-first into one of the issues I take with Golarion as a setting. Narratively, I greatly prefer it when gods are not that much stronger than the most powerful of mortals, archfiends, and similar entities. I am a fan of the power scaling in the setting of, for example, 4e: gods really are not much stronger than the most powerful of mortals, archfiends, and similar entities. Top-level heroes in 4e can engage full-on gods, though the heroes do need to quest for relics and anathemas if they want to kill off the deity for good, rather than just discorporate the god for a lengthy time. This gives a nice capstone for campaigns, and it explains why gods might think twice about direct intervention: they are far from truly immortal.

Golarion's gods are different. They are explicitly entities far beyond the power scale of even the strongest mortals, and the only reason they do not directly intervene more often is because other gods would step in. That is a decent design direction, but it gets sketchy when an adventure path's narrative calls for deicide, imprisoned gods, and directly fighting gods. Age of Ashes clearly wants to run exactly those themes, with the Ekujae elves having defeated Dahak (book #2 even refers to them as "children of the godslayers"), Dahak being imprisoned in the Huntergate waystation, and Dahak being the final boss of book #6.

Thus, the adventure path has to pussyfoot around all of this with "Actually, the real Dahak is totally fine and still on the loose; the Ekujae defeated only an avatar, only an avatar is trapped in the waystation, and only an avatar is the adventure path's final boss," as confirmed by James Jacobs. It is quite stilted to me, and the real Dahak and Apsu being distant players in these affairs is even sketchier. I do not like contrivances like these made solely to preserve the untouchable power level of the divine.

Essentially, the narrative themes call for the defeat of a god in the past, the imprisonment of the god, the release of that god, and the subsequent defeat of that god in the present age. But since gods have to be of an untouchable power level in this setting, the adventure path has to skirt all around this by saying that it is not actually a god that people are dealing with, just an itty-bitty aspect, and the real god is still flying around the multiverse somewhere. The real Dahak is so strong that it does not matter to him what happens to this teensy-weensy aspect being fought. That is on the more contrived side to me.

If the narrative has the adventurers squaring off against that god and performing deicide, then make it against that god for real, rather than skirting around the issue with "after all is said and done, the real Dahak is fine, everyone."

The thing is, Paizo actually has done similar themes before, back during its Dungeon Magazine run. Both Age of Worms and Savage Tide end in the party fighting and killing multiverse-tier threats, namely, Kyuss and Demogorgon. How does the party manage it? By collecting artifacts and running sabotage on their awesome cosmic power, so that, for example, Demogorgon drops down from a daunting CR 33 to a much more manageable CR 23.

Paizo seems reluctant to do anything similar with cosmic-level entities in its Pathfinder adventure paths.

I will quote a contact of mine here: "To summarize my stance on it, I think it's fine to have gods be untouchable but do not write adventures about fighting against gods directly then. At least not if you do not have some interesting take on it and inventing contrived excuses like avatars that are just dangerous enough to threaten the world but not dangerous enough to draw divine attention is not interesting."

I think it would have been very cool to have Age of Ashes have the real Dahak imprisoned, with each adventure unlocking keys with which to reduce the genuine god's power and then finally eradicate him from the multiverse once and for all.

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Purely as an aside for Age of Ashes, I like how a key plot point of the adventure path is names that end in "-gate," like "Huntergate," "Lotusgate," and "Vengegate," which makes it sound like the PCs are dealing with all kinds of juicy political scandals.

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One point of frustration I have been having with Age of Ashes as a GM thus far is that many encounters mix in boggards with non-boggards, in both books #1 and #2, which means that the boggards will be friendly-fire frightening their non-boggard allies.

Scarab Sages

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Colette Brunel wrote:
... the party makes extensive use of the Scout exploration activity, further pushing up initiative ...

I'm confused. Scout provides a typed, non stacking bonus. What do you mean by extensive use?

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I mean that the standard operating procedure has been agreed upon to have one person use Scout when about to enter a new room.

Pathfinder Adventure Path Subscriber

Just chiming in, I find your play reports interesting. As also an anime inspired D&D 4e fan myself. (4e is my favorite game/edition though I do run many different styles/games (D&D 2e to 5e, PF1, Exalted, and a few others) and it isn't the best for all of them, I do dip in to the grittier side occasionally. I am currently looking in to making PF2e my new home with a couple of house rules. Honestly I struggle with finding the perfect system cause I have a love for both simulation-ism and anime-heroic fantasy, which are often at odds).

We only did the first session of the adventure so far but my party is also taking extreme passivism and friendship route. I have...

•Basically Teen idol Enigma Bard (knowledge and diplomacy focused) who is the daughter of the counsel president (father is an obvious open plot hook of a mysterious adventurer responsible for her MC:sorcerer bloodline)
•Her BFF Gnome Redeemer Champion, non-flickmace variety (MC alchemist and party crafter) with a large family which by pure luck is involved with half the relevant NPCs to this plot, her brother works with Calmont at the book store, sister works at the pickled ear and so on.
•There school friend a "spanish" elven fencer (open handed dex fighter)/ flamboyant performer / token ladies man in a all female party.
•and an ex-bandit (Human Universal Wizard) who turned in her family (the bandit group was run by them) when they were starting down a darker path and had just accepted a job to kill farmers for some merchant guilds to get there land for mysterious reasons (was okay with robbery, but not murder) who is hiding out in Breachill, also connections with Pickled ear and just barely dodge connections with Voz (was looking for a wizard mentor and it was a toss up between Voz and the half-orc library who I deemed more helpful but less skilled, she chose the one who seemed more easily "duped" if need be)

Fire Hazard
I struggled with the level of transparency for the Fire Hazard, I wasn't sure where it was supposed to fall so I gave mechanics to questions asked only, it was kinda hard to swallow how 40 people would fail to escape in an orderly town, so I at least comically played it up with the counsel being both heroically helpful (but still 1 person per turn) and equally embarrass suggesting many more fire drills are in order. The idea of structured non-combat is always cool, but the major reason combat works it's everyone knows the rules of combat before it starts.

Hellknight Hill
not many encounters here yet (we had lots of roleplaying time).
They peeked in the first room saw sleeping ratty dogs and decided not to bother them, they were correctly identified as Goblin dogs and since some of them know Warbal personally assumed they belong to the goblins they new lived here, and wanted to avoid hurting them, so they went through the locked door (which was oddly easy to open form the outside DC:15 thievery despite being tied shut and boarded up.

To my absolute surprise they managed to "befriend" Yoletcha (the bugbear) who I intended to run as written, purely murderous. However the manner in which they approached her gave them a chance to diplomacy her out of immediately hostile, so she tried to lure one away to just kill/torture/enjoy that one. I did my best to play as a creepy dangerous individual (she had dolls made of dead animals, constantly wanted the PCs things, was "shy" and wouldn't let all of them in the room to talk, rambled on about sharp cutting tools, tried to separate them, was constantly touching there hair with her greasy filthy furry fingers, she would snap and need another diplomacy to ease down if anything changed too suddenly) despite this they played it safe and had her show them to the goblins, she then got spooked by the dragon-gator and went back to her hut.

The Grualadon was slow and distracted, so the Elven fighter (with gladiatorial lore, acrobatics, athletics, performance, and double it's speed) decided to Bull Fight the thing to distract it so the party could sneak to the rope and climb up. At first he was disappointed it wouldn't work since round by round would fail to capture it so I ran it as a cinematic Action by Action event, they eventually made it to the top without fighting it (although they eventually decided it was too dangerous and spammed daze till it was knocked out).

Calmont ended briefly with a critical failure against a charm spell and a critical successful diplomacy, he is now happily following them back to town believed entirely they will plead his behalf to the counsel and then work with him to get to Alseta's ring (which isn't there real plan but he will happily walk back to town with them). (I need to work on my critical failure knowledge as well, as the party is operating under the assumption he was confused and under duress due to a Purple Broccoli allergy, know to be a rare side effect for halfings, which explains his rash and silly behavior).

The Power of Friendship!
Your party is a bit more extreme then mine but if you continue to run hell knight hill (despite being very non-standard) I am interested to see what kinds of routes a super friendly party will take. I know there isn't the slightest chance they will do anything to those Kobolds (especialy once they see the art, the "party leader" is an extreme fan of things that are derpy/ugly cute) and your "expansion" on Voz's notes honestly gave me some good ideas (Yes I do mean fantasizing about how super cool there "Norgorbite Assassin school for the Necromatically Gifted" will be, I think despite her dower outside demeanor she will be quite the whimsical and peppy in her dairy/journal, the party was already shocked after I had given her some RP time and then she made a pun about Calmont being "Fired" they might die when they see her notes).

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Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Superscriber

Your write-up makes for an interesting read, though in a big part because it is so very different from what I would choose to do as a GM (and honestly how I'd enjoy playing it as a player). Of course, as long as GM and players are enjoying themselves, every way of playing it is the right way.

I was wondering though how exactly you go about being transparent about the mechanics of an encounter. Do you actually provide the players with a list of possible actions along with their associated DCs and consequences of each result (crit fail, fail, succeed, crit succeed)?

Say, during a social interaction where the party is trying to talk someone into something, do you tell them "you can either use a DC 20 society check or a DC 16 Smithing Lore check" or is it more like "you meet this guy what do you want to talk to him about?" and only with a previous gather information check (or a good percetion check about the soot under his nails) do the players even know that talking about smithing might be an interesting option and even then don't know if its better than just society?

Or did they know that trying to intimidate Calmont was only a DC 16 and even on a crit fail nothing too bad would happen?

Because it seems to me that a policy of total openness regarding mechanics of an encounter makes any encounter massively easier, especially if you reveal the exact DC or their relative difficulties to each other (and even more so if you reveal non-obious consequences of failures).

Also, did I read that correctly, you do not roll secret checks, but rather "all rolls are out in the open"?! No actual believable false herrings on critically failed gather information/recall knowledge checks? So the players know which checks failed and which info is true? That too would lower the difficulty quite a bit.

In addition, on the topic of making encounters easier, letting a level 3 rogue and 2 level 2 kobold dragon mages join the 2nd level party as GM-run NPCs (in addition to the intended level 2 Armiger) even though nowhere in Clamond's text does it suggest that he should join the party and the kobold support (while "up to the GM") is suggested as distracting the Cinderclaws, stealing from them, etc (yes, it includes outright attacks, but I did not read that as join the party to spam Electric Arc, much less still being with the party during Guardian's Way) makes any encounter about half difficulty at best. Not to mention your Paladin willingly grouped up with a known arsonist and hostage-taker??

Also, hand-waiving the exploration mode options by letting the player repeatedly do everything mechanically useful without it taking any significant time also strikes me as making encounters that follow easier, though amongst your modifications that is probably the one most commonly used.

Again, all these modifications are all good and well if you and your group are happy with the resulting play-style. Just be aware, you are lowering the difficulty significantly from what it was intended to be, which I guess might contribute to making the initial combats seem like a breeze.

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A new report. We played for a shorter, four-hour session, during which I handed out 4 extra Hero Points on top of the baseline. The party has completed Hellknight Hill and reached 5th level, all in a single in-game adventuring day. They have spent zero consumables, and they have knocked out every enemy in Hellknight Hill that could be knocked out, with the exception of a giant bat that was accidentally killed. This has been a ~99% pacifist run of Hellknight Hill.

For reference, I write these recaps under the assumption that whoever is reading them has already read and familiarized themselves with essentially the entirety of the adventure. I do not feel like summarizing plot points and scenes for people unfamiliar with the adventure.

With regards to transparency, I try to be as transparent as possible. For example, as far as combat statistics are concerned, everyone can see monster Perception, special senses, AC, Fortitude, Reflex, Will, Speeds, hit points, Attack of Opportunity capacities, and active spells simply by hovering the token; other monster abilities, I keep behind Recall Knowledge, for the sole reason that I am trying to actually respect the existence of knowledge skills and give an incentive to invest in them.

In other situations, if the adventure allows for skill checks to help resolve a scenario, I flatly and openly tell the PCs what skills are open to them and what the DCs are. I generally let players know all DCs, so that they are absolutely certain what they are getting into, and they can decline to make a given skill check if they are worried about critical failures. All rolls are out in the open; the core rulebook allows GMs to declare that secret rolls are instead made out in the open, and I do that for every check. This is simply my GMing style: heavy transparency, no fudging from either side, and players are entitled to a peek behind the curtain to see how the mechanics of a given challenge tick, even if it is something as simple as a skill check's DC. This has been my GMing style for years.

I really hate critical failures on Recall Knowledge, too. I see nothing good that can come from them, with regards to my GMing style. They are anathema to my style that emphasizes transparency and earnesty. Whenever a critical failure for Recall Knowledge happens, which is quite frequently, due to some of the rather high DCs in this adventure, I just hand out some completely ridiculous and bogus factoid, and the players play along with having their PCs believe such a thing. They are very diligent about this.

I do essentially automate exploration mode, because I really, really hate its execution. I do not like dungeon crawls at all, and Hellknight Hill has not made me like them any more. I assume that the PCs take their sweet time in each room (because really, there is zero time pressure and nothing in the way of consequences for going slowly), I tell them to make any relevant Recall Knowledges, and I assume that they spam Seek enough to discover whatever can be found with Perception, because there are no critical failures on Seek actions.

To recap, the party is a maestro bard, a flickmace paladin champion (multiclassed into fighter for Opportunist at 4th), a guisarme fighter with Brutish Shove and Powerful Shove, and a crossbow Precision ranger. Joining them are Alak Stagram (effectively a 2nd-level NPC fighter), Calmont Trenault (effectively a 3rd-level NPC rogue), and Pib and Zarf (effectively 2nd-level NPC sorcerers). Nothing in a paladin champion's code prevents bringing along an evil associate. You might think that this has made encounters terribly easy, but no, I have been ramping up and combining encounters considerably.

For example, during 1st level, I combined the warg and the graveshells, and the giant bat and the skeletons. Back at 2nd level, when only Alak and Calmont were tagging along, I had the warg mother as an elite winter wolf. The next encounter was the two emperor birds, then the elite soulbound doll and the gelatinous cube both arriving at the start of the second round. When Pib and Zarf joined up, the next encounter was three boggard warriors and two boggard scouts; then, five charau-ka all arriving at the start of the second round. When the party reached 3rd level, the Guardian's Way encounter was the five Bloody Blades mercenaries plus Dmiri up on the tower (which screwed over the party due to the horrifically bad Climb rules); then Voz, the tixitog, a spider swarm, and two skeletal champions all arriving at the start of the second round.

4th level, then. The party found Voz Lirayne reasonably adorable in a dorky sort of way due to her ambitions for an edgy school, so she has been spared and left out in Guardian's Way.

Onwards to the Goblinblood Caves. For this final encounter of Hellknight Hill, I threw together the six hunting spiders, Ralldar the greater barghest (already buffed with Blink), Malarunk the charau-ka cleric, the two boggard scouts, and the two charau-ka as a single massive encounter, in one wave all together. I should mention by this point that I pre-type almost everything, and the players play along with pre-battle banter. Thus, I had Malarunk and Ralldar go back and forth, explaining the situation with the failed Cinderclaw invasion, the malfunctioning Huntergate portal, the dead goblin worshipers, and so on and so forth. I was very thorough in laying out plot points, as usual.

The setting of the fight was the spider nest: "The floor of this chamber is covered in sheets of tangled spiderwebs, creating a sticky mess that turns the floor of this cavern and the tunnels leading out of it into difficult terrain. The webs that cover all of the walls here are similar to those in the corners of area C7. As a result, any creature who ends their turn adjacent to a wall must succeed at a DC 18 Reflex saving throw or spend an action on their next turn pulling themselves from the sticky webbing." One thing I really hate about Paizo maps is that, for anything other than a geometric-angled building (and sometimes not even then), the map is unclear on where the "walls" are and where creatures can actually stand. I have to manually draw out the walls each time and lay out markers for which squares can actually be occupied.

Now, the entire cavern was difficult terrain, which meant that nobody could Step. The party had a grand total of three reach-weapon-users with Attack of Opportunity: the flickmace paladin champion with Attack of Opportunity, the guisarme fighter, and Alak Stagram the 2nd-level NPC fighter, who was given a +1 halberd. Since nobody can Step into difficult terrain by default, this meant that Attack of Opportunity proved extremely effective in locking down enemy options and screwing over enemies.

The maestro bard opened the fight with the usual Inspire Courage + Lingering Composition, then caught four spiders and the two charau-ka mooks in a Calm Emotions. This may have devastated the enemy side, but the four spiders luckily managed successful Will saves, one charau-ka critically succeeded, and it was only one other charau-ka who critically failed. Pib and Zarf, effectively 2nd-level NPC sorcerers, spread out their Magic Missile castings to make the most of Inspire Courage, and the martials of the party were able to knock out the mooks (the spiders, the boggards, and the charau-ka) quite effectively. The mooks did accomplished nothing of note throughout the whole fight; their raw statistics were low, and their d20 rolls were unlucky.

Malarunk was quite nasty. Malarunk managed to catch the entire PC side (i.e. 8 characters) in a Fireball all with no friendly fire. Later, when it was just Malarunk, the greater barghest, and a single mook left, Malarunk fired off a 3rd-level, three-action Harm with d10s for dice, catching the entire PC side as well. Given that there were so many GMPCs, Malarunk was blasting the living daylights out of the party. The bard critically failed Fortitude against the Harm, due to being out of Hero Points, thus knocking out the bard. This was unfortunate, because the bard spent their last turn on an Illusory Creature with the intent to sustain it and have it deal damage, meaning that the spell could no longer be sustained.

Fortunately, due to good positioning from the guisarme fighter and Alak the 2nd-level GMPC fighter that had entrapped Malarunk, both of Malarunk's castings each provoked two Attacks of Opportunity. Malarunk was ultimately knocked out before the cleric's turn in the third round, and the champion was able to bring back the bard with a Lay on Hands.

The greater barghest was a terrifying juggernaut. I had Ralldar start off with Blink, since it was, after all, at-will, and the enemies were ready for the party. This meant resist 5 all, except for force damage, which 2nd-level NPC sorcerers Pib and Zarf were able to put forth using Magic Missile. The greater barghest's Confusion would have been nasty had it landed, but fortunately, a success shrugged it off. The greater barghest's 4th-level Enlarge was fair game for casting on the greater barghest themselves, which made Ralldar clumsy 1, but also gave Ralldar +4 damage and 15-foot reach, absolutely horrifying given that a greater barghest has Attack of Opportunity. Speaking of which, Ralldar's castings of Confusion and Enlarge both provoked an Attack of Opportunity from the paladin champion multiclassing fighter due to good positioning, although Blink did reduce the damage both times.

Even when the greater barghest was the last enemy standing, things were very dicey. Ralldar could deal tremendous damage and had Attack of Opportunity with 15-foot reach. Calmont risked a Attack of Opportunity to Stride twice and enable a flank from the melee combatants, though, and that let the party more accurately beat down on the fiend. The resist 5 from Blink was proving greatly annoying. The party lucked out on this one: the bard cast Command during the fourth round, and the greater barghest critically failed. This allowed the party to finally gang up on Ralldar and knock out the greater barghest by the middle of the fifth round, though the guisarme fighter themselves got knocked out due to suffering from Ralldar's fangs' persistent poison damage.

It was a very brutal fight against a large number of enemies, and the entire PC side ended the combat with heavy damage. Fortunately, it was nothing that Medicine checks and a champion's Lay on Hands could not solve.

The entire enemy side was knocked out. The party found Ralldar's tragic backstory of dead worshipers to be sympathetic, so they conversed with the fiend, or at least, my specific portrayal of a greater barghest. After some talks, they befriended Ralldar to a reasonable degree. They even provided the greater barghest with not one, but two spider-heads mounted on humanoid skeletons, simply by heading back to the caves where Voz's skeletal champions fought giant spiders and rigging together something from the remains. Maybe I am too much of a softie, but I let even Abyssal fiends like greater barghests potentially be redeemed. The PCs picked up the goods from Ralldar's treasure room, including the many bones of past victims.

Remember when I mentioned hating secret checks and critical Recall Knowledge failures? I hate them when the adventure stipulates high DCs specifically, because it means that PCs are ofttimes more likely to critically fail than regularly fail, which means being inundated with faulty and misleading knowledge. Nobody dared make the DC 30 Arcana check on the golden scale. I had Pib step up with Dragon Lore +10, and Pib critically succeeded. Of course, all that really revealed, as per the adventure, was that the scale belonged to an ancient gold wyrm. That was rather disappointing; critical success on a very high DC should surely grant more actionable information than that, right? The plan is to excavate the collapsed tunnel leading to what can only be the ancient gold wyrm's lair; the books give no guidance whatsoever on how to let this happen, so I will have to improvise something on my own.

The party picked up Renali without incident. Knowing my players and my aesthetic, Renali did not even bother with any disguise. They happily accepted the spider-girl into the merry band. It is worth noting that this adventure has many arachnids and arachnid-related creatures in it: the two spider swarms in the kitchen, the spider swarm and the tixitog in Guardian's Way, the six hunting spiders in Guardian's Way, and now, Renali.

The pit of fungi was easy to deal with. Electric Arc spam, and done.

Lotusgate Waystation was yet another case of very high Recall Knowledge DCs. The players tried their luck this time, so I came up with my usual bits and pieces of nonsense "lore," which the players played along with. The GMPCs had better fortune. Renali critically succeeded on the DC 30 Identify Magic check, revealing that the breath of an immensely powerful dragon beyond most mortals' power had ruined the chamber. Calmont critically succeeded on the DC 20 Society check, unveiling that the carvings were of a pre-Earthfall elven civilization. Maybe it is just me, but these critical successes were on the disappointing side, particularly the Identify Magic check; it is all non-actionable information, the ancient elven nature of the ruins is plainly obvious, and the cause of the destruction becomes dead-obvious later on anyway, when the PCs learn of the Ekujae elves' ancient conflict with an avatar of Dahak.

Thus did the party reach Alseta's Ring. This is where plenty of the NPC incompetence came to a head. In previous weeks, I have lamented just how stupid the NPCs in Hellknight Hill, but the Alseta's Ring takes the cake.

Let us be clear here. The goblinoids of the Goblinblood Caves, including some more intelligent hobgoblins, were unable to stumble across Alseta's Ring. Human soldiers later discovered Alseta's Ring, but doorwardens drove the troops away, and nothing ever came of these soldiers' discovery of a portal network. Later on, Ralldar the greater barghest was somehow entirely unable to discover Alseta's Ring as well. Then, the entire Hellknight Order of the Nail found Alseta's Ring, and even built a small shack inside it, but they wholly failed to realize its significance as an international portal network; do Hellknights not have signifers for exactly such a thing?

How is it that so many people either were unable to find Alseta's Ring despite their proximity to it, or did find it, but totally fail to realize its significance? The Identify Magic DC for the elf gate network is DC 22. It is not that high. The entire multiverse has bent over backwards so as to make all previous explorers and inhabitants of the Goblinblood Caves and Citadel Altaerein totally incapable of finding and/or realizing the significance of the portal hub. It is bad writing.

Then, the Order of the Nail simply... abandoned Citadel Altaerein. They could have gifted it to Breachill, who could have made use of the castle's resources. But no, they just left Citadel Altaerein to be looted by outlaws (the same outlaws the Nail swore to put down!), inhabited by savage monsters, and defiled overall. Why? Because "the lictor at the time had no interest in retaining a presence in Isger, but he had a mercurial and whimsical streak in him that compelled him to leave the deed behind, so that anyone brave and resourceful enough to find their way to this deepest part of the fortress would be rewarded." Really? A lictor of the disciplined and lawful Hellknights trusting in a mercurial and whimsical streak, thus letting Citadel Altaerein rot in the grasp of savagery, rather than gifting it to the local town?

It is also rather implausible that, in the original version of the adventure, the Cinderclaws were unable to get out of Alseta's Ring and link up with Ralldar the greater barghest. Do the charau-kas not have climb speeds? What makes them incapable of just climbing their way out of the same hole that the PCs used to get in? There is no explanation for this.

Well, whatever the case, Hellknight Hill is complete. The party has reached 5th level, and I have informed the PCs that the entirety of 5th-level content includes no creature combat. The GMPCs, Renali included, are leaving the party to head back to Breachill and report the party's findings. The PCs are heading straight into Huntergate and the Mwangi Expanse from here. They are just about to meet my shamelessly anime take on an avatar of Dahak inside the Huntergate waystation; this is one of the few ways in which I am diverging from the premade narrative, because I believe that the avatar of Dahak needs some characterization and presence in the storyline as an actual NPC.

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Pathfinder Battles Case Subscriber; Pathfinder Pathfinder Accessories, Starfinder Roleplaying Game, Starfinder Society Subscriber; Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Superscriber
Colette Brunel wrote:
With regards to transparency, I try to be as transparent as possible. For example, as far as combat statistics are concerned, everyone can see monster Perception, special senses, AC, Fortitude, Reflex, Will, Speeds, hit points, Attack of Opportunity capacities, and active spells simply by hovering the token; [...]

This right here is why your party finds everything so easy. It's easy for them because you are making it so. That is great if that's how your group likes to play, but this is definitely not the norm.

Silver Crusade

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Pathfinder Adventure Path Subscriber

Phew, I was worried there for a second that Colette's game are ran under parameters anywhere resembling mine, or any other game that I was ever part of across the last 25 years. Whoosh, I feel so relieved there.

Dark Archive

It is true, part of what made 1e Pathfinder combat hard IS players not knowing what is the optimal way of dealing with encounters, that kinda applies to all rpg systems to be honest. But yeah, the Rappan Athuk's and Slumbering Tsar's difficulty is completely based on players having no idea what they are facing.

Like I get desire to show that you aren't fudging, but by showing them from first round what enemy ac and saves is means they won't ever do mistakes like using will save spells on creature to whom will saves are their strongest saves.

Still I guess its okay if thats the way your party prefers it, but it definitely does make things much easier.

Anyhoo, kinda wondering why ye go with cute route for Dahak though considering afterwards the Ekujae will be referring him as the dankn- I mean THE DARKNESS(...its inside joke :P) Plus for all we know, Dahak might actually have a speaking role later on. Plus I kinda see Dahak as rebel teen anyway :D

Grand Lodge

Pathfinder Adventure, Rulebook Subscriber; Pathfinder Battles Case Subscriber

Access to knowledge is the biggest determinant of difficulty in the game. In a recent 1E game a character died because the party could not tell that the Str damage the cleric was receiving was from a shadow, thus prioritized other targets. (Initiative also was not in their favor.) I have seen the same battles go very differently for different groups due to one having knowledge of what they were facing and the other having to trial and error how to handle the enemy.

Dark Archive

TriOmegaZero wrote:
Access to knowledge is the biggest determinant of difficulty in the game. In a recent 1E game a character died because the party could not tell that the Str damage the cleric was receiving was from a shadow, thus prioritized other targets. (Initiative also was not in their favor.) I have seen the same battles go very differently for different groups due to one having knowledge of what they were facing and the other having to trial and error how to handle the enemy.

Wait, how the heck they didn't know strength damage came from the enemy?

I mean, normally gm would say "You take strength damage from attack" ._.;

Grand Lodge

Pathfinder Adventure, Rulebook Subscriber; Pathfinder Battles Case Subscriber

They knew it was Str damage but didn't realize it was a shadow due to magic. So they couldn't identify it properly and realize it was going to be deadly.

Silver Crusade

Pathfinder Adventure Path Subscriber

Let's start with the fact that this means that you know the HP/AC/saves/immunities/vulnerabilities of enemies and can optimize working from there.

Given that PF2 is ultimately a tactical wargame, it's like playing an RTS without the fog of war, easy mode on. Also, this pretty much alters the whole dynamic of the table, with the GM being forced to compensate for the player's meta-tacitcal advantage with beefing the encounters so that despite the advantage the PCs are in some danger.

It's some way to play an RPG, but it's about as far from the D&D/PF baseline as I can tell. It makes the touhou kawaii anime Dahak look like a minor afterthought.

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Gorbacz wrote:

Let's start with the fact that this means that you know the HP/AC/saves/immunities/vulnerabilities of enemies and can optimize working from there.

Given that PF2 is ultimately a tactical wargame, it's like playing an RTS without the fog of war, easy mode on. Also, this pretty much alters the whole dynamic of the table, with the GM being forced to compensate for the player's meta-tacitcal advantage with beefing the encounters so that despite the advantage the PCs are in some danger.

It's some way to play an RPG, but it's about as far from the D&D/PF baseline as I can tell. It makes the touhou kawaii anime Dahak look like a minor afterthought.

All that is fair, but the part I have a hard time reconciling is that presumably all this was true when Colette ran the playtest and repeatedly slaughtered the party in every adventure.

I don't explain all that stuff, running something that seems pretty baseline, although my players haven't tried sitting around for extended periods to refresh after every fight; the treat wounds temporary immunity has mostly covered that. My players are neither finding Hellknight Hill as easy nor found the playtest as hard. I'm about halfway done with part 3, and have downed PCs 3 tunes, but the last one was where a bunch of 2nd level characters opted to pick the southern wing of the lower level first, where the challenges are listed against 3rd level enemies. And even then, there have typically been crits from natural 20s as major contributors to downed PCs by taking off big chunks of HP.

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RicoTheBold wrote:
All that is fair, but the part I have a hard time reconciling is that presumably all this was true when Colette ran the playtest and repeatedly slaughtered the party in every adventure.

There are a couple of caveats here.

For one, yes, I did, in fact, use the exact same policies back when I was running the playtest adventures. Three out of four of my players are the exact same players I had throughout the run of the playtest adventures; they can confirm that they have had the same transparency privileges back in the playtest.

For two, the transparency cuts both ways. If anything, the NPC and monster side has even more knowledge of what the PCs can do than the NPC and monster side. This means that, for example, I am aware of the ACs and saving throws of all PCs, and I can cherry-pick my targets appropriately. I can have ranged-weapon-users target the lowest-AC and lowest-HP member of the party (this is why I went for the bard in the Guardian's Way encounter, for example), I can have spellcasters use their save-forcing spells against whoever has the lowest saving throw of a given category, and I can have enemies keep Attack of Opportunity capacities in mind and take Steps accordingly.

Is this realistic or immersive? Obviously not. But it makes for a more mechanically-focused, wargamey-tactics-inclined experience, where most of everyone's metaphorical cards are on the table. That is how I like my games.

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Really now, you guys are seriously going there? Well, I normally don't like getting involved in conversations like this, but people saying that I am having "BadWrongFun" kinda is a pet peeve of mine.

I'm one of Colettes's players in Age of Ashes, and yes I was in the playtest. You can look at my posting history if you'd like. I've been participating in dozens RP's for what, 6 years now and personally GM'd PF1e for the past 4. And I can genuinely say, that NOT ONE PERSON IMPLEMENTS TRANSPARENCY THE SAME WAY!

Seriously, how much information the GM gives out to the players is ENTIRELY subject to the GM and party's tastes. Not one person who I've played with has ever run transparency the exact same way. Ever. Some GM's hide everything from the players, some hide nothing. I can tell of games where the GM wouldn't tell us if we were getting past an enemy's DR, and I've had a GM literally flip open the bestiary to the enemy we were fighting and stick it in front of us (For the record, said GM was NOT Colette. Colette only gives us that info on a crit).

Hell, I literally made how little or much info the players have in combat a bloody plot point in my homebrew campaign. Last session, they could see their opponents current and max HP, their exact AC, to hit, and saves. The session before that, they didn't even know how weakened an enemy was by their attacks. All cause the context fit for my setting.

So stop calling Colette's desire for transparency a bad thing, it's entirely GMing style. And we should all agree calling people out for having "BadWrongFun" is something that should be avoided.

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I think it's more, "Yes, of course the module is going to be easy if you run encounters that way," and less, "You are having fun the wrong way."

Also it is a little odd that I remember Colette's Playtest posts, but the first I've heard of this level of transparency. You can definitely play your own way, but with the Playtest, I assumed that you were encouraged to run the rules uniformly before giving feedback.

Silver Crusade

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Lyricanna wrote:

Nobody is saying that it's bad or wrong. Feel free to point me to anybody saying that. The strongest assessment made here was that this way of playing makes things easier for PCs and alters the baseline dynamics of the game. It's an opinion informed, in my case, by 25 years of playing God knows how many RPGs with Satan knows how many MGs.

All we're saying that it's a super niche and rare way of doing things. It's a bit like if we were discussing basketball only to discover at some point that I'm talking about basketball played with two baskets and one ball and you're talking about one played with one basket and two balls.

At this point for me this thread, all of Colette's Age of Ashes threads and questions, and their entire account of the playtest earlier have become suddenly much less relevant than they were before. And I'm slightly disappointed about the fact that this extreme table variation wasn't disclosed earlier. That would save me some reading and time.

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Ruzza wrote:
I think it's more, "Yes, of course the module is going to be easy if you run encounters that way," and less, "You are having fun the wrong way."

Is it really going to be easier if the transparency cuts both ways, and the GM is just as free to cherry-pick defenses and try to play around, for example, Attacks of Opportunity? I have NPC/monster spellcasters gun for low defenses whenever possible, for example, and AC values heavily inform my focused fire tactics.

The transparency certainly did not help the players during the playtest run, and my brutal tactics certainly have not changed between then and now.

Ruzza wrote:
Also it is a little odd that I remember Colette's Playtest posts, but the first I've heard of this level of transparency. You can definitely play your own way, but with the Playtest, I assumed that you were encouraged to run the rules uniformly before giving feedback.

The playtest rules never once gave any guidelines for transparency. There was never anything like, "You should reveal to players only X and Y statistics to start with." I was fairly clear on a transparency policy when running the playtest.

In this thread in particular, I believe I made the transparency quite clear from the very first post.

Grand Lodge

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Colette Brunel wrote:
Ruzza wrote:
I think it's more, "Yes, of course the module is going to be easy if you run encounters that way," and less, "You are having fun the wrong way."
Is it really going to be easier if the transparency cuts both ways


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Could you please explain your reasoning here? I unashamedly metagame my monsters and NPCs. They know everything the PCs are capable of in a fight and can focus their fire and adapt their tactics accordingly.

The PCs can do something similar with their knowledge of defensive values, but they do not have instant knowledge of actions and special abilities short of Recall Knowledge.

This is the exact same policy I was using in the playtest adventures, and my players can confirm as much. It did not exactly lead to any victorious playtest chapters or scenarios.

Colette Brunel wrote:
Ruzza wrote:
I think it's more, "Yes, of course the module is going to be easy if you run encounters that way," and less, "You are having fun the wrong way."
Is it really going to be easier if the transparency cuts both ways

100% absolutely. The combat wasn't designed for the GM to "win," but for the players to face the challenges and overcome. With cards face up on the table it is categorically in the players' favor.

And I'm not saying it's a bad thing. If you prefer running your games easier, that's cool! It's just weird hearing someone saying it's too easy when you're running it that way.

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Okay. I was using the exact same transparency policies back during the playtest adventures, as my players can confirm. And you are likely aware of the roughly two dozen TPKs during those playtest adventures. I was using brutal tactics and focused fire.

Today, in the full release, I am using the same transparency policies, and I am still using brutal tactics and focused fire. Notably, there have been no TPKs, though fights have come close sometimes.

I am still having monsters and NPCs play in a very metagame-y and focused fire fashion, and the players still have only as much information as they did in the playtest adventures wherein they were constantly TPKing.

Revised math is, once again, a hell of a drug.

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I think the best analogy is that you seem to think you're playing Texas Hold 'Em Poker with each player having access to the center cards. "We generally know what each other has and can plan and play accordingly." But this sounds more like everyone has their hands fully exposed. As a GM you're not empowered to "win;" you're not as likely to draw that flush as your players are.

Again, this is not a bad thing. This js a playstyle and one you and your players seem to enjoy. You don't have to defend your playstyle. Just bear in mind that your playstyle is not a failing of the system, but an adjustment of it.

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There is nothing here that gives the players an advantage over the GM. The GM has more information than the players, for example: monsters and NPCs know all special abilities of the players, whereas players have to manually use Recall Knowledge to learn monster and NPC special abilities, bit by bit, using their own actions.

Monster tactics have changed in no way whatsoever from my playtest runs. They still focus their fire and use very cheap tactics, cherry-picking defenses.

I cannot see how you would say that the players have the bigger advantage here. These are still the same tactics being used during the playtest TPK runs.

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I'm not going to continue with this discussion. Engaging with you has always been a fool's errand.

Grand Lodge

Colette, you're the GM. Your monsters should act logically and attack weak enemies with tactics and stuff. Like, you're allowed to do that without giving all their info away to your players. Giving your players all that information removes a large variety of the mystique of fighting something new and powerful for the first time.
I'm sure, to give an example, you've never had an overconfident player roll a 19 against an opponent only for you to reveal its got a higher AC than that and shock the table about their chances.
This is not an indictment of your GMing style, I don't believe anyone is doing that, but I think most of us can agree that the system just wasn't intended to be played in the way you do. Mystique is an important tool in the GMs arsenal, after all.

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Your monsters should act logically and attack weak enemies with tactics and stuff.

I do not see why the same courtesy should not be extended towards the players. I would prioritize transparency and earnesty over some semblance of "mystique."

I get to focus my fire, cherry-pick defenses and work around PC special abilities.

The PCs get to focus their fire and cherry-pick defenses, except that they do not get to work around special abilities that much (Attack of Opportunity transparency aside), because they need to use Recall Knowledge for information on special abilities and the like, consuming actions each time.

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Like, I think it's a totally valid way to play (that's how I tend to play boardgames with similar tactical elements). I've just found that too much transparency kills a certain amount of immersion for some folks. And there's lots of ways to be immersive or transparent; I tend to be lazy in describing combat attack results narratively so I don't mind having am HP bar that lets players have an idea how much damage the monster has taken.

And I feel like Colette has been super up front about the way this game has been run, and it's certainly different from me.

I feel like one of the big differences has been the use of the GM PCs, which was not something my group really had the opportunity to leverage in the same way, and that has a much bigger impact from a mechanical standpoint than the hyper-transparency. Other than, maybe, the hyper-transparency making the setpieces in the town hall and the first level of the citadel dramatically less tense.

Anyway, I'm grateful for Colette's report on how the game is going. I think the takeaway is probably that it makes more sense here in its own thread where it has the extra context than in the main GM book-specific threads.

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