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I'm ramping up to play Pathfinder, a system with which my players are not familiar, although they have a little bit of experience with D&D (so Pathfinder won't be very shocking to them).

One of my player's concerns is that the system is heavy on rules, and he's afraid that it will stall the natural flow of the game too much, something he disliked a lot when he played a couple of D&D sessions. Though this could also be because of the GM they had back then. I don't know the details, but it's likely a combination of the two.

My perception is that Pathfinder is basically a streamlined version of D&D, already simplifying the amount of 'crunch' without dumbing it down.

Still, I have the feeling I need to ease the party (and particularly this player) into the Pathfinder system without overwhelming them with the amount of crunch.

One way of reducing crunch for players is to do as much as possible myself. I'd have full character sheet copies and basically they'd just have to roll and they get my answer. But considering this will be my first time GMing, I fear that putting all the crunch on my end will slow down the game too much.

Another thing I have considered is simplifying their character sheets so that things are grouped more logically. Instead of grouping all attribute scores together, put each attribute score with their corresponding properties (such as putting your Strength stats with things like melee combat and encumbrance, while putting Intelligence or Wisdom with spell casting related things).

How can I find the right balance of crunch players have to do (roll, find their bonuses on the sheet, do the math, tell me the result), and the amount of crunch I have to do (compare result with ACs / opposing rolls, describing the outcome, etc.)?

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Are you sure Pathfinder is the game for you? Maybe you would like to start with something simpler? –  Inbar Rose May 13 at 11:00
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A good question. I'd have to say yes, because it's the RPG system that I personally have the most experience with, and feeling confident enough to GM. –  Marc Dingena May 13 at 11:17
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I've been reading this series of blog posts about how to remove the "roll/rule for every breath" nature of games like Pathfinder: angrydm.com/category/features/for-dungeon-masters/… There will always be rolling for problem resolution, but that "5 simple rules" post helps keep the rolling as a relevant, interesting part of gameplay. –  EnvisionAndDevelop May 13 at 15:09
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Just commentary: Pathfinder really isn't a streamlined form of D&D 3.5. They are very-nearly the same game; Paizo made very few major changes. The only significant cases of streamlining are in the Combat Maneuvers and in various polymorph effects. Even the Combat Maneuvers are mostly just as complicated as they were, they're just more consistent with one another (Grapple being the major exception there). –  KRyan May 13 at 18:36
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Related: How playable is Pathfinder at High Levels –  C. Ross May 14 at 10:57

4 Answers 4

Let me borrow a common answer from StackOverflow, usually applied to software development:

  1. Premature optimization is the root of all evil.
  2. First measure, then fix.

First Measure

There are many elements in Pathfinder that take time, especially for an unexperienced group, but attempting to address all of them before the first session of play is probably not cost-effective. You might spend several hours readjusting the character sheet layouts, when the basic layout wasn't a bottleneck to begin with.

Talk to the players and try to establish the first session as a test-run. Like a tutorial-stage in a video game. Start with an ultra-short adventure or encounter that features the main game elements (combat, of course, but some spell casting and skill checks) to make sure you've got full coverage, and run it to see what takes time, what breaks down, and what goes smoothly. This will give you the information you need to tweak properly, to see what really needs help.

Then Fix

That said, there are several elements I've run into myself with Pathfinder games, especially with new players, that will probably pop up in your measurements. Here is what we did:

  • Pre-calculate common rolls.

    The character sheet has convenient fields for the attack/damage totals. USE THEM. Many players leave those blank, but they add a couple of seconds to every combat round. Calculate as many common scenarios as you can and add them to the sheet. Adding +2 when flanking is easy, but if you write your total attack bonus in one column, and your total-while-flanking in another, it saves you a second of calculation.

    Are you a ranger with bonuses against a favored enemy? Note it down explicitly, rather than having to recalculate. And always keep them up to date when leveling up. To employ software terminology again, a lookup in a table is cheaper than recalculating every time, even for a simple calculation.

  • Use spell shortcuts

    Most melee attacks mechanics are relatively straightforward, but when it comes to spells, each one is a bit different, with their own rules and conditions. Checking out a spell's description after you cast it can bring the combat to a screeching halt, especially if you only have one book that has to be handed around.

    There are two good solutions I've used, depending on the player.

    • For myself, I use the Pathfinder Spellbook app for my Android phone. It let me collect all my available spells into one list (I usually play spontaneous casters) for super-quick lookup, without leafing through a book. There are more apps with more data, but this one was specific and streamlined.
    • For another player, who preferred paper to screens, I used one of the adaptations of 4th Edition's Power Cards to Pathfinder. In 4e the number of powers and their specific description are given even more prominence, for martial as well as arcane characters, and so the basic character sheet has large, easy to read cards for each power with its numbers, parameters and descriptions. There are several community-made solutions for Pathfinder. I used Perram's Spellbook, but there are others. They used to be linked to from the PFSRD, but I can't find them there anymore. Google "pathfinder power card" for options.
  • Delegate

    Your players might be new to the system, but they can still be given general tasks to take pressure off of you. The classic one is intiative - have a player be in charge of tracking initiative for everyone in combat, and call out the next character or enemy in order. This isn't hard for a player to track, doesn't really require system mastery (just have everyone give that player their initiative totals at the beginning), and can take a lot of pressure off of you.

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Perhaps introduce a trouble-ticketing scheme? ... While that comment was made completely facetiously, filling bug reports is actually a Really good way to document gaps in knowledge. –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton May 13 at 10:10

Less HP

If fights are brutal alleypiece struggles and not twenty-round extravaganzas, crunch will be less onerous on the players. Set up encounters to encourage strategic movement and no more than 3 turns of actual combat, tweaking monster stats if necessary, and there will be less crunch between each 'event' like a monster dying or jim swinging on the rafters to kick a witch in the face.

Know Modifiers

Ask your players to have the number they add in their head before they roll. People rolling the dice and then spending 5 minutes looking over their sheet or deciding between a disarm and sunder is generally why it feels like crunch is taking forever/taking over the game. It vastly improves response time and decisionmaking if they find the modifier before they roll - largely I believe because it encourages off-turn decisionmaking.

Handwave Stuff That Doesn't Need A Roll

The barbarian rages, turns green, grows to size Large, and picks up and hurls a cart at the flimsy front door of an inn? It breaks. That's a bad example, because a 1 could have the cart going somewhere else and breaking something else and that would be good humour moment right there. But you get the idea. The Bard chats up a bargirl to get some info? That's not a bunch of bluff and diplomacy checks, that's a Gather Info check. And if it's easy, like 'general mood of the town', he doesn't need to roll it.

A good rule of thumb is, if Taking Ten would result in success, just assume they did that and tell them they succeed instead of asking them for their crunch rolls.

Yes, even in combat. Sometimes the Goblins are just gonna die and then flee and making the Paladin spend rounds and rounds killing them before they run away as a group is lame. Just narrate it.

Also: If there's 7 little monsters with minor differences in attack roll or damage or whatnot, group them together, give them the same bonuses, same damage, and roll them as a set on the same initiative. Do not get bogged down in minutiae - and don't let your players get bogged down either.

If there's a bunch of archers on a roof, don't roll their attacks, just assign archery damage occasionally, or have the players occasionally roll a reflex save vs 'volley fire'. Abstract the effects of things that would require lots of fiddly dice rolls, and you can save lots of time at the table.

Have The Crunch Of Your Monsters And Challenges Ready

Have it clearly written out, have gone over it several times so the numbers are in your head. Every second of time you spend looking over your notes or crunch, that's seconds the players are not getting to be in the spotlight or spend the time making their own decisions. You can reduce the impact of mechanics by having all of your own sorted out - it's always easier to do your own stuff than get other people to do their stuff, and you should before you do anyway.

Also; Don't do it all yourself. That takes agency away from the players. Some players, very few, are fine with this, but for most it will take away from the game.

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+1 for managing modifiers in your head. While this might get tricky later on when you have more modifiers, bigger modifiers and conditional modifiers (hello 5 different types of AC), it's even something that can be done in advance, since you typically only have a limited amount of changed modifiers between the beginning and the end of a session. unless the GM decides to give a ring of luck +5 to all dice rolls, but that's so overpowered that I doubt any sane GM would give it. –  Nate Kerkhofs May 13 at 14:04
up vote 9 down vote accepted

I've read a couple of blog articles on how to get the most out of your system. Some of these articles described clear cut methods of reducing the amount of senseless dice rolls and skill checks. This doesn't mean that Pathfinder - or any other system for that matter - has a bunch of useless or too granular rules, but it means that you shouldn't try to put a skill check or die roll to every interaction during play - a mistake commonly made by GMs.

The text below was mixed and matched from two different articles on AngryDM.com. This answer came about after a comment by EnvisionAndDevelop. I have decided to mold it into an answer because these articles actually provided me with the answers to my question. That is not to say that lisardggY's answer and Jack Lesnie's answer weren't up to par. They have both made excellent points, some which are shared with my answer below.


5 simple rules to reduce senseless dice rolling and crunching

Rule #1: Players can only declare actions or ask questions
When the DM asks a player: “what do you do,” there are only two valid responses. And neither one involves the name of a skill.

  1. The player can ask something about the world or the situation.
    Players often shoot themselves in the fight by trying to use specific skills in situations in which they are clueless. They often respond with “can I roll a History check” based on the fact that it is their highest skill and they want to roll that one.

  2. The player can describe what action his PC is taking. And he should do so as if the adventure were a book and his PC was a character.
    Players treat the game world like a point-and-click adventure game. It causes them to focus on pushing buttons instead of thinking about the living, breathing world.
    It doesn’t matter what skill or ability score the player thinks his PC should roll; what matters is what the PC is actually doing in the world and what the PC is hoping to accomplish. The GM will ask for rolls as appropriate or determine the result some other way.

This rule needs to be enforced and reinforced constantly. You can use sarcasm to playfully educate your players:

GM: “… and the guard refuses you entry to the Citadel.”
Player: “Can I roll a Diplomacy check?”
GM: “Sure, knock yourself out.”
Player: “27.”
GM: “Wow, that’s a really good roll. Anyway, that was fun, but what do you want to do about the guard?”
Player: “I meant I wanted to roll that check at the guard.”
GM: “Well, he’s impressed by your roll too, but he didn’t bring is twenty-sided die. Besides, he’s on duty and can’t play dice games with you right now.”

Rule #2: Only roll when there is Chance of Success, Chance of Failure, and Risk
It’s fun to roll dice, sure. But only when it’s dramatically appropriate. Otherwise, it’s a waste of time and makes die rolling seem trivial, robbing the game of dramatic tension and frustrating the players. Every time a player describes an action, the GM has to decide whether a die roll is called for. And he should do so by asking these questions:

  • Can the action actually succeed?
    If the action is impossible, either because it’s just impossible or because the difficulty is so ridiculously high the player can’t succeed, don’t roll. Either tell the PC that it is impossible or narrate the failure. Done.

  • Can the action actually (truly) fail?
    While a lot of actions seem like they can fail, they really can’t. PCs researching a library will eventually turn up what they are looking for. The trick is to decide whether the PCs are constrained in doing so.

    Assuming a lock is within the PC’s skill level, they will eventually pick the lock and get it open. But if the room is filling with water or monsters are beating the snot out of the PCs, the question is not whether they succeed, but whether they succeed in five rounds. That is something they can fail at.

  • Does failure carry a risk?
    A risk (or cost of failure) is something that requires the party to decide whether it is worth continuing to try (time is running out to escape from the bomb) or else establishes a point of final failure (the bomb went off, you died). If there is nothing in the scene that would A cause the party to stop trying to succeed or B keep them from being able to try again and again, just give them the success and call it a day. The roll is a waste of time.

    And beware not to impose constraints that don’t really exist.
    “Because it will take an hour” is not a constraint.
    “Because it will take an hour and the place will explode in two hours” is a constraint.

Rule #3: One roll is usually enough
Once you’ve decided that a die roll is actually called for, the next decision is whether to break the action down into one die roll or several. The answer is almost always that one roll is enough. Rolling the same check over and over is boring. Instead of focusing on individual attempts, focus on the situation. Specifically, when does the situation change?

Imagine the PCs are trying to break down a door. On the other side of the door is an ogre enjoying his Ogre Treats Cereal. If the PCs smash open the door on the first try, they will be surprised to see the ogre and the ogre will be surprised to see them. Neither side will be able to ambush the other. Initiative will be rolled as normal.
However, if they fail to smash open the door, the ogre will realize someone is trying to get in and he’ll prepare an ambush.

So, something changes. Therefore, it is appropriate to call the first roll a single attempt that can succeed or fail by itself. And then the party can try again after that failure.

When there is a source of rising tension that the GM can easily communicate to the players as a cue to change their minds, it is okay to break a complex action down into multiple “attempts” and require multiple die rolls. But each attempt needs to represent a changed situation as described above.

Rule #4: Don’t make the PCs ask questions
A question is a speed bump to role-playing. The idea of role-playing is that the player is presented with a situation. The player projects himself into the mind of the PC and decides what the PC does in that situation. But when the player has to double check whether or not something is in the PC’s head to make the decision, they have an extra step between situation and decision. A speed bump.

There are a lot of GMs out there who will describe a circle of strange runes on the floor but wait for one of the players to do something that indicates they would like to make a knowledge check (like ‘examining the runes’). But if you see a thing and you know what the thing is, the information pops into your head unbidden. That’s how brains work. If they didn’t work that way, we’d spend all our time examining things and pondering things and squinting at signs from three feet away.

So, as soon as a PC is exposed to a thing they might recognize or know something about, they should recognize it or know it. Or at least make the die roll.

GM: “On the floor of the room is a strange circle. Anyone who is trained in Arcane Mystical Knowledge, please roll a check.”
GM: “Arathicus and Bob recognize the circle as a summoning circle. A demon summoned into such a circle is bound, unable to leave it or return to its home plane unless the wizard lets it out.”

Of course, researching things is a different matter altogether. But then, the PC is doing something.

Rule #5: Approaches are actions, not skills
Skills are just tool to resolve actions. Come up with approaches to your encounters. Sure, approaches might mirror some skills, but as a general rule, it's preferably to have the GM figure out which skill or ability check to roll to suit a particular action. You want to be able to wiggle on skills and abilities.


Fast and concise action resolution

The above 5 simple rules help you cut down on the excess amount of dice rolling and crunching. But when it's time to roll the dice, you need to resolve (adjudicate) the action fast and clean. To help adjudicate actions, consider the following aspects.

The cycle: determining the results of actions

  1. The GM presents a situation.

  2. The players imagine their characters in that situation and decide how the character acts in response.

  3. The GM determines the outcome and describes the results, creating a new situation.

Right? That’s a role-playing game, at its heart. Except that step three is a little more complex. It looks more like this:

3A. The GM determines whether or not the action is even possible.
3B. The GM determines whether the outcome needs to be randomly determined.

B1. The GM determines how to randomly determine the outcome.
B2. The GM makes a die roll or instructs the player to make a die roll.
B3. The GM determines the outcome of the die roll.

3C. The GM decides an outcome.
3D. The GM describes the results of the action of the players.

Intentions and Approaches
When a player declares an action, you, as the GM, are looking for two things. What is the player trying to accomplish and how is the character trying to accomplish it? You can call these things the Intention and the Approach. Do not try to adjudicate the action unless you can state clearly in your head an Intention and an Approach.

  • Intentions tell you what success looks like.
    Do not be afraid to ask the player what the character is trying to accomplish. Always ask about unclear Intentions. “What are you actually trying to accomplish” is a good question to ask.

  • The Approach tells you how the character is trying to accomplish the Intention. Sometimes the Approach is obvious. Sometimes it is not. And sometimes key details get left out. For maximum clarity, you should always force a player to be as clear as possible about their Approach. “What exactly is your character doing?”

  • The Approach is as vital as the Intention. The Intention tells you, the DM, what success and failure look like. The Approach helps you determine if the action is possible and helps you determine what mechanical rules to use. But, more importantly, the Approach is the part of the action where all of the role-playing lives, because the Approach is what differentiates one character from another more than anything else.

How to adjudicate the action
Once you have identified a clear Intention and Approach, it is time to adjudicate the action. And we’ll run through the steps, one by one.

3A. Determine whether the action is possible
Ask yourself two questions: - Is the action the character is attempting physically, mentally, or spiritually possible in the game world? - Can the Approach the player stated actually bring about the Intention the player stated?

If you determine the action is not possible for either reason, the action fails. Skip to 3C in the cycle. You’re done.

3B. Determine if the outcome needs to be randomly determined
Now that you have determined the action can succeed, you need to determine whether or not it warrants a die roll (see 5 simple rules section above). To summarize:

  • If the action can’t actually fail or failure is extremely unlikely, the action succeeds. Huzzah! Skip to 3C in the cycle.
  • If the action can fail, but failure carries no risk or cost and the player can freely try again and again, the action succeeds. Huzzah! Skip to 3C in the cycle.
  • If the action can fail and failure somehow changes the characters’ situation, you need to use the dice.

3B1. Determine how to randomly determine the outcome
By grilling for a clear Approach, you’ve done most of the work for figuring out how to use the rules. This is the part where you crack the book and roll the dice. Use your best judgement and you will do fine.

3B2. Make a die roll & 3B3. Determine the outcome of the die roll
Roll the dice and determine whether the die roll succeeds or fails. Read the rulebook if you are unclear; the whole rulebook is basically about this step.

3C. Determine the outcome (and consequences)
The rule books generally, inexplicably stop at the words ‘success’ and ‘failure’ and assume you can take it from there. The Outcome is a direct result of the Intention and whether or not the action itself succeeded or failed, so, the Outcome writes itself.

The other half of the result is the Consequence. Consequences are a very important way to spotlight the choices your players make in Step 2 in the cycle. A Consequence is something that occurs as the result of choosing a specific Approach. They can be positive, negative, or neutral, and they can vary depending on the success or failure of the action, but their existence should never depend on the Outcome of the action. That is to say, whether an action succeeds or fails, you must think about the Consequences. How does the players decision to utilize that particular Approach change the world?

  • “Because the party jumped over the ravine, the ravine remains an obstacle for anyone traveling that hallway.”
  • “Because the PC bullied and browbeat the guard into letting him into the castle, the guard told the other guards about the PC. Now they all dislike the PC and will harass him.”
  • “Because the PC chose this approach, this consequence exists in the world.”

3D. Describe the results
Now comes the time to show off your improvisational chops. You need to tell the players what the Outcome of the action is and apply any results. If the Consequence is something that has an immediate, direct effect on the party right now and it needs to be handled, throw that on as well. Then, you need to lead into the next decision point.

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Well, I'm glad I made you do it, as my answer would not have been nearly as detailed. –  EnvisionAndDevelop May 15 at 2:53

You can also look at some online character sheet systems that do a lot of calculations for you.

For example the game I'm currently running uses http://www.myth-weavers.com for all character sheets. You enter the stats, level, etc and it then works out things like your attack rolls, saving throws, ability bonuses, etc and fills them in for you.

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