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Pathfinder's Unique Balance

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Pathfinder's Unique Balance

Unread postby icycalm » 14 Jan 2021 05:22


As I continue to read up on Pathfinder, I finally figured out a great mystery: why their adventures are written with a party of 4 in mind.

At first, it made no sense. These guys went to town complexifying everything, so why would they dumb down both the tactics and the roleplaying by reducing the party size to an unheard-of 4? Remember that D&D 1E adventures were typically written for parties of SIX to EIGHT, and 2E and above for 4 to 6. Even 5E stuck with 4 to 6, despite being simplified in most every other respect compared to Pathfinder. Even A VIDEOGAME, Pathfinder: Kingmaker, which was an adaptation of a 4-player Adventure Path, boosted the party size to 6; even a VIDEOGAME trumped Pathfinder in at least this respect. It just didn't make any sense.

And then I figured it out. It's all about balance. You have to put yourself in the designer's shoes in order to understand his thinking.

Pathfinder was the first D&D edition that decided to REALLY balance the adventures. Because the typical D&D "balance" that designs adventures "for 4 to 6 characters of levels 5-8" makes no sense, as I've already explained. 6 characters of level 8 (6x8=48) are on a whole other level of power from 4 characters of level 5 (4x5=20); we're talking over TWICE stronger! And that's WITHOUT taking into account the "action economy", i.e. the fact that a party of 6 characters has 50% more actions per round than a party of 4, so that, even if their levels were equal, the bigger party would still be 50% stronger. So when the larger party is ALSO higher level, you're not talking TWICE as strong, but THREE times! And you're seriously telling me that an adventure can possibly be balanced for both these parties simultaneously?

So D&D adventures were never really properly balanced out of the box; they were very roughly balanced, and the DM was always meant to HEAVILY adjust and rebalance them to suit his party, even though that expectation was never mentioned anywhere: decent DMs figured it out eventually and acted accordingly.

Well it turns out that the Pathfinder team decided to put an END to that practice, and PROPERLY balance adventures, so that they could be ran out of the box with ZERO effective adjustment by the GM! A truly laudable goal!

However, once they had decided on this goal, they had to also decide on the target party size, because it's simply impossible to balance an adventure for different party sizes, ESPECIALLY if all those adventures are meant to start at 1st-level, which leaves no wiggle room for compensating for a smaller party with higher-level characters. If ALL the characters are expected to start the adventure at 1st-level, it makes a WORLD of difference if the party is comprised of 4 or 5 or 6 characters. And so of course they went with 4, since no other choice would have made financial sense: the bigger you demand the party to be, the fewer groups there will be who will possess the required number of players. And if some groups want to play with a larger party, they can do what Owlcat did and just rebalance the adventure for their needs. But the publisher is obliged to target the absolute smallest party size conceivable to avoid scaring away a good half of their target market if not more. 4 players, after all, is an acceptable party size for D&D. My group in the '90s had 4 players (plus me as DM). It's not ideal, but it works, and the vast majority of D&D adventures are compatible with it. So Paizo did not intend to dumb down the game with this move, they intended to provide real balance for the first time in the game's history, which is something that INCREASED their workload, because it's much easier to design encounters for a vague party of "4 to 6 characters of levels 5-8" than for "4 characters of level 1". In the first case, you can just ballpark the fights, and let the DM do the hard work of fine-tuning them, but in the latter case you can actually RIGOROUSLY TEST every single fucking page in the 600-page campaign! All the more so since every chapter has "checkpoints" telling you pretty much EXACTLY WHERE the characters are expected to level, so that you could playtest every single fight in the campaign if you wanted to, in any order. And that's what it sounds like Paizo has been doing. They even went as far as to design for a group TEAM COMPOSITION, with the target team being: warrior, priest, wizard, rogue, which solved YET ANOTHER massive issue with D&D balancing: the fact that there's no way in hell to balance an adventure for the countless possible character- and skill compositions available in the game. And remember that these possibilities increase exponentially when we're talking about a 5- or 6-player team, let alone the 7- and 8-player teams that were customary during the 1E era.

Doesn't this 4-player warrior/priest/wizard/rogue target composition feel too restrictive?

It sure as hell does. But that's the price to pay for solid balanced adventures out of the box. This isn't a videogame where balance can be all over the place since the player can simply reload a hundred times, and even save-scum every single attack in the entire game if he wants to; balance here is A MILLION times more important than in a videogame, since entire MONTHS and even YEARS of progress are at stake IN EVERY SINGLE FIGHT! And up until Pathfinder, this extremely delicate job was essentially left at the DM's hand, which of course, as we have seen (see Ultimate Balance, or The Complete Douche's Guide to Balancing Adventures), means that it had almost always been botched. So Pathfinder CERTAINLY fixed this issue, and that is a TREMENDOUS development for the artform. And if a DM wants to add one or two more characters to the party—as he certainly should, if he can find the players—then he can do the same rebalancing work that he's been expected to do in every single D&D edition ever, and STILL has to do for 5th Edition. So for the DM who has 5 or 6 players, nothing has changed in this respect. But for DMs with exactly 4 players—who are moreover happy to stick to the bog-standard composition of warrior/priest/wizard/rogue—Pathfinder adventures are perfectly balanced out of the box (within limits, obviously; everyone is fallible, and balancing 600 pages is no easy feat even if you know the exact party composition) so that the DM can just throw at the players exactly what's written in the text and not have to think about it. And that's a great service to the artform: that simplifies a DM's job immensely, and moreover it teaches those DMs PROPER BALANCING, so that at least they get a good taste for it before they try to run bigger or more diverse parties, and inevitably have to deal with rebalancing.

Bottom line is: Don't feel constrained to run 4-player Pathfinder campaigns if you have more players: there is absolutely nothing in those campaigns that penalizes larger parties, and you WILL have more fun with larger parties, both in the roleplaying and the combat, AS LONG AS you do a solid job at rebalancing the adventures—as every single edition of D&D REQUIRES that you do. But if you're a beginner DM, or if you simply happen to have exactly four players in your group, Pathfinder adventures should be your preferred material, because no other edition of D&D provides what this one does: REAL FUCKING BALANCE for the first time in the artform's history. There was simply no way to accomplish this for random party sizes and random compositions, so naturally Paizo chose to go with the most basic, most fundamental composition possible, which is warrior/priest/wizard/rogue. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.
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