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My D&D 4e party is a few levels away from the end of their epic campaign, and they want to keep playing D&D with me.

I have recently discovered that I really like some of the Adventure Paths for Pathfinder and we already decided that we will be switching systems, but my current players either started with 4e (3 players out of 4) or never created the mechanical part of the character themselves.

One big difference between the system they already know (4e) and the one they need to learn (PF) is that once you understand that hitting often is important and dealing more damage, raising defenses and winning initiative are the next steps, 4E characters are easy to build. Building powerful PF charcters requires way more mastery, despite the availability of SRDs there's no electronic character builder that helps you filter feats and powers you can take and trap options are many more and harder to spot.

So, building an optimized character is hard - and I think building a character that is balanced against the campaign is even harder. The one Adventure Path I'm currently DMing, Curse of the Crimson Throne, seems to be written with the assumption that random guys who just met at a Pathfinder Society organized play table should be able to play through it with no hassle.

For comparison, at my table even a Swashbuckler (a tier 5 class, which according to the tier system means "not the best even at its main job") is dishing a lot of damage around. Three level 10 characters (one level lower than the AP mandates) dispatched an Advanced (32 more HP and more AC) version of Cindermaw in one round just by dealing enough damage.

(We had one alchemist with frost bombs, one swashbuckler and one investigator with a firearm)

I'm wondering if limiting available material to Pathfinder Society approved material, or limiting material similarly to 5e's "core + one book" limit, maybe combined with "no tier 1 or tier 2 classes", could be enough to creat characters who get properly challenged in combat.

If such easy and formulaic methods are not enough, how does one ensure that the characters are at the right level of optimization?

Unless we change our mind, this group will be playing either Way of the Wicked or Curse of the Crimson Throne.

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There are several ways to try to achieve a good group cohesion.

Round 0.0

Instead of starting off the game with the standard question of "What are you playing?" and having a look over the character sheets and then starting the adventure, start with a round that has little to no gaming but is focussed on laying out what you are going to play and building characters. As a GM, bring the Adventure Path's primer document for each player and a document with the basic house rules you are going to enforce for sure. From experience, I learned that such a document could also benefit from containing the social contract of the table if it has to be formulated (things like cellphone and device usage on the table).

In this round 0.0, make sure to communicate your expectations to the group in regards to combat ability and finesse in building the character. Offer to help in making the character.

Communication

When setting up the group, make sure to establish a communications channel for all the people. Think about a mailing list, WhatsApp or another instant messenger, so people can quickly exchange ideas about what they like to play in regards to their characters.

Limiting availability

In Pathfinder I experienced that limiting to "official material only" is a common strategy, as 3rd party material often is not balanced at all. It is also common to declare a ban on one or another class, trait or feat that is particularly broken or nonsensical.

Core+1?

In Pathfinder, the 5E Adventure League rule of "Core + 1" does not work out at all, because Pathfinder is more supplement based and only very rarely prints the same feat into different books. The +1 would quite easily be swallowed up by either the Advanced Player Guide and that has to compete with the Advanced Race Guide and Ultimate Combat/Magic/Equipment/Wilderness/whatever books for being taken as the +1, since none of these is considered core. Instead, Pathfinder Society Rules - the equivalent of Adventure League - states:

Step 1:Core or Standard Mode

The first thing you need to decide about your character is if he will be adventuring in the Core or Standard Mode. Standard Mode character creation includes all products found in the Additional Resources referenced in Chapter one.p7

Additional Resources

You can view a frequently updated list of all campaign-legal Additional Resources online at paizo.com/pathfindersociety/resources. In order to utilize content from an Additional Resource, a player must have a physical copy of the Additional Resource in question, a name-watermarked Paizo PDF of it, or a printout of the relevant pages from it, as well as a copy of the current version of the Additional Resources list.p5

Step 3: Race and Class

Select your character’s class and race from the choices offered in the Core Rulebook. You may also select kitsune, nagaji, tengu and wayang as your character’s race with access to the proper Additional Resources book. Other races are not legal unless the character’s Chronicle stack includes a race boon. Additional class and race options from resources like the Pathfinder RPG Advanced Player’s Guide, Pathfinder RPG Ultimate Magic, Pathfinder RPG Ultimate Combat, Pathfinder RPG Advanced Race Guide, and Pathfinder Campaign Setting: The Inner Sea World Guide are generally available with few or no alterations, as well.

The limit in PS is a list of available books and limiting it to certain options from others.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ 1) I'm definitely going to have a session 0, maybe two, because I want the characters to be deeply rooted in the setting this time, but how can the player, never having created PF characters before, aim to a certain combat ability? 2) Are PFS rules enough to guarantee that characters won't be overpowered? In my experience with the 3.5e equivalent, where one player rolled a debuff wizard that trivialized every-single-encounter, the answer was "no". \$\endgroup\$ – Zachiel May 26 at 10:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ While PFS doesn't guarantee balance, but Core+1 actually disturbs any chance of balance. \$\endgroup\$ – Trish May 26 at 11:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ good to know, that's one thing I'll avoid then. \$\endgroup\$ – Zachiel May 26 at 17:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ You may want to point out that what you call a "round 0.0" is often called a "session 0" it'll help to connect what you are trying to describe to a very popular term for it. \$\endgroup\$ – Rubiksmoose May 27 at 17:58
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For new Pathfinder players, an approach I like is to tell everyone to play a single-classed character whose class gains 6th-level spells. This is vastly stricter than you really need, but it is a simple rule that simply works well. The ⅔ casters each get enough spells to have tricks and options to deal with Pathfinder’s high-magic world, while also having some kind of significant non-spell options to ease resource management and avoid the problems of high-level spells. It should also be very familiar to 4e players—spells become dailies, and other options are mostly at-will, or daily pools that work out to bring roughly in line with encounter powers.

Just be sure to use the unchained (nerfed) summoner. You may want to sure players interested in the bad toward the skald instead; the bard is a little poor.

This ends up being very similar to mandating T3, but it’s easier to explain and keeps people more on the same page. Eliminates any arguing over proper tiering, which is a nice bonus.

As for your approaches, I will echo Trish and say Core+1 does not make any real sense in Pathfinder—Paizo’s otherwise-admirable resistance to power creep means that supplements don’t offer the improvement in balance that they did in 3.5e, but it does mean you have plenty of material so you can cut out the large chunk that’s problematic and still be left with plenty to play with. I don’t care for that rule in 5e either, but at least 5e’s been planned around it, with large compendium books ensuring your +1 can still offer a broad range of options.

Pathfinder Society’s rules don’t really focus on balance, and are not truly aimed specifically at addressing your concerns—that is, balance is a concern for them, but one of several competing priorities. Ensuring smooth gameplay among strangers, for example, is far more important than balance. And frankly, their attempts at balance haven’t impressed me much—for example, they banned the synthesist archetype for the summoner class, even though on reality it is a near-strict downgrade compared to the regular eidolon (thanks to action economy).

So I do not think either AL or PFS approaches is particularly good here.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm using unchained everything, be it a nerf (summoner) or a buff (monk, rogue, etc.). I'm not completely sold that 2/3 is enough to force a deoptimization to CotCT levels (in the end the alchemist and the investigator are 2/3 spellcasting classes and the swashbuckler isn't even a spellcaster, and they are disproportionately effective against at least some monsters in the adventure). At least the suggestion of using 2/3 spellcasters is easily actionable and should at least flatten the effectiveness between party members... \$\endgroup\$ – Zachiel May 27 at 20:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Zachiel Ultimately, as far as I can tell, players are supposed to walk all over Paizo AP’s. I have never seen a party, no matter how naive, come up with something that low-power. They seem to be balanced around roughly “warrior who has taken solely non-combat feats” levels of optimization, barring when specific magics are necessary to solve things. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan May 27 at 21:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ that's a bit sad. I'm not sure I want to rehash all encounters again, but more that that, I'm not sure I'll be able to build NPCs that have answers to what the players can do, even if rolling new enemies from scratch. Maybe I shouldn't be the DM. \$\endgroup\$ – Zachiel May 29 at 21:30
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There is a trick I use to manage this, which.. is a bit like cheating, as a DM, but it works. It is a thing I call Iterative Character Rebuilding.

How it works:

Step 1: Create character with the lowest complexity you can afford. If possible, start at a low level - preferably 3 or below. Starting at a low level helps to identify balance issues as soon as they pop up. Limiting multi-classing can help a bit.

Step 2: Play the game normally. Don't worry much about balancing stuff right away - for now, check how their abilities work within the context of the adventure and take notes for things that are evidently under or overpowered.

Step 3: After (if) you identified stuff that is an actual problem, pull in the affected player and talk with him to find a solution for the issue. Explain what the problem is, and work with him over the options you have to fix it without damaging the character fantasy. Rework the fluff around abilities if necessary. At this step, don't be afraid of swapping feats, classes, spell choices or class features around. Race choice is harder to change, but this can be solved with a quick retcon or in-game with a narrative solution (like being hit by something similar to a Rebirth spell).

Step 4: After fixing the character, go back to Step 2.

Evidently, you'll have to inform your players that you'll be doing something like this. Once they see the sheer amount of options something like Pathfinder has, it becomes clear that you may end up messing up a bit during your first attempts at a decent build, and they'll probably be okay with a process like this in place.

It has also a very good plus side - since you'll be fiddling with balance often to make sure your game works, your players will be more at ease if the necessity of taking away or nerfing something overpowered appears.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "something similar to a Rebirth spell" - sounds like reincarnate \$\endgroup\$ – Mołot May 27 at 21:09

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