Character creation in my next Pathfinder game

I’m going to be wrapping up my current game in the next month or so. I’ve been running Dungeon World and Fate Core, but our next game is going to be Pathfinder. One might wonder why we’d go back to such a morass of rules and splats, but my group likes it for the most part. My players aren’t really optimizers, but they like building characters; everyone knows the rules, and I’ve made some tweaks to how I run skills to make them play better at the table; and we enjoy tactical combat, which neither Dungeon World nor Fate Core really do on the same level. We also all know and like the Pathfinder campaign setting, though to be fair we’ve been using it in the other games I run without issue. However, there are some things that Dungeon World and Fate Core do really well that I’d like to incorporate in my game while avoiding some of the elements that didn’t work well for my group.

Session Zero

There were several elements of both Dungeon World and Fate that I liked and felt worked well with my group when I ran those games. The most important one, and the one that lays the framework for everything else that we’ll be doing, is the dedicated character creation session, also known as ‘session zero’.

It’s tough for everyone to find time outside of the session to work on character backgrounds. We’re all busy adults with families and other responsibilities that tend to take priority. Even if they did have time, some people just aren’t interested in the spending the time on a background. It could be that they don’t like the creative writing exercise, or maybe they’ve been burnt by past GMs who asked for a background and then never used it. I’ve played in my share of the latter, so I can certainly understand the sentiment. However, if we do everything together, then it’s kind of like rolling up characters in the old days: everyone bounces ideas off of each other until the group arrives at a consensus regarding what to play. The only difference is that there is an added element of world building.

In Fate Core, session zero is dedicated not just to character creation but figuring out just what sort of problems interest the players (and their characters), which helps set the tone of the game. It gets everyone on the same page, and it starts laying the groundwork for narrative collaboration in the game.

Ask Questions and Use the Answers

One of most important things I took from Dungeon World, which I hate to frame it as such since it’s so obvious in retrospect, are its principles, which actually come from Apocalypse World. During character creation, none of these are more important than: Ask questions and use the answers. It establishes that the game as a conversation between the players and the GM telling a shared story rather than competing to overcome challenges devised by the GM.

Using the answers is critical. It reënforces the shared ownership of the narrative, which goes a long way to allaying concerns by players having been burnt in the past by GMs who asked for information and then never used it. It does require me to step up my game and always be asking questions, but I think that’s a good thing. In addition to providing me with ways to engage the game other than just combat encounters and challenges, it pays off by offloading some of the work from me to the players, and it can be an excellent source of plot hooks.

Aspects and Bonds

Being a source of plot hooks is one of the things I liked about aspects. During character creation, players create a number of aspects related to their characters. These include a concept, trouble, and what Fate calls the phase trio. The phase trio is a series of incidents happening prior to the game’s start involving an adventure and the crossing of characters’ paths. These are all good things, but we found aspects themselves to be a bit more trouble than they’re worth (outside of a Fate game).

I’ve tried hacking aspects into other games before. During my last D&D 5e campaign, we converted our backgrounds into aspects. The idea was to use compels as a source of inspiration. It didn’t really work out very well. I tried the same thing in my last Pathfinder game, except substitute hero points in place of inspiration. Neither worked very well in practice. The problem was that fate points require aspects to be pervasive, and they just weren’t. It would require far too much work to hack aspects into those games, which relates to the reason why I ended up running Fate Core: I was grafting so many elements of Fate onto Pathfinder that it seemed like a better idea to convert and just run Fate Core instead. Unfortunately, aspects are just really difficult for players new to them to grok. A good aspect is evocative, says something about the character and her relationship to the world, and it can be a source of both invocations and compels. They can get too caught up in trying to phrase them properly. Ironically, there’s something of a dearth of good examples. Sure, the book is full of really good aspects, but they’re maybe a little too good, so players would try to emulate those: trying to run before they learned to walk and ending up flat on their face as a result (due to the aspects they created not working very well in practice).

With practice, I think we all could learn to create some great aspects, but since we’re going to be shifting gears back to Pathfinder, I think we’ll take worked well generally (such as the phase trio) and leave behind the ones that did not.

I should note that Dungeon World has something similar for player characters called bonds. These are a little more narrowly focused, specifically on the characters relationships with each other. I don’t think my players ever resolved a bond in play, so they never marked XP for that. However, we liked the Dungeon World XP system in general and will be using elements of that in Pathfinder.

Game and Character Creation

For our first — zeroth, really — session, we will hash out the themes and setting but also the parameters of character advancement. As I noted above, everyone generally liked the XP system in Dungeon World, and a big part of that were the end of session questions. While we could use them verbatim, I think tailoring them to the campaign would be best. Dungeon World is at its best when the mechanics reënforce the game’s theme and setting, and if I’m going to take from it, then I should respect that. Any issues that we decide will fuel our initial fronts, another idea from Dungeon World that I find myself using in pretty much everything I run now.

Character creation will be a little looser than what we tried in the past. My players will work out their concepts first, then we’ll generate stats — yes, generate. If you look at the way classes were designed in early editions of D&D (or offshoots such as Pathfinder), some have higher ability score requirements than others. While the explicit requirements were dropped from 3e, they’re still functionally there. Rather than give everyone a heap of points in a point-buy system or provide an alternative to the usual ability score bonus progression (such as a level-dependent point buy), we’ll be using what I call the card method.

I’m not sure who created it originally, but I believe I found it on the Paizo forums. Since we started using it, it’s come to be our preferred ability score generation method. It’s random, but it’s generally pretty fair. There’s a range of power, but no one is getting to get multiple 18s nor multiple poor scores. The card method can be described thusly:

  1. Shuffle together two sets of cards numbered in ascending order from four to nine.
  2. Deal the resulting deck of cards into six piles of two cards each.
  3. Total each pile individually and record the results. These numbers are your ability scores.
  4. Assign your ability scores as you see fit.

While we won’t be using aspects per se, the ideas behind them are still important. After creating their characters, players will provide a statement concerning their characters’ alignments. While it might be nice to remove alignment completely, it’s so ingrained in Pathfinder that one pretty much has to just deal with it. Even the alternatives suggested in Pathfinder Unchained barely patch over it. After that, we’ll go through the phase trio. Of course, I intend to ask lots and lots of questions. Everything on their character sheets ought to have a story behind it, and with those stories comes supporting characters, relationships, and obligations that can all serve as sources of plot hooks. This should give us a solid foundation on which to build a campaign.