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Especially when running complex combats with lots of NPCs and especially when those NPCs have a lot of options, I constantly feel like I'm missing some.

Which problems did I encounter while running Pathfinder combat as a DM?

I'm going to give examples taken from my current run of Curse of the Crimson Throne, anniversary edition. I have changed the builds to suit balance needs and personal taste but the general composition of the encounters might be a spoiler to you. Hence the spoiler tags.

Last night I had a game with the following NPCs:
- Five advanced cavalier (sister in arms) 5 / fighter (myrmidon) 1 mooks
- One advanced pennangalan aristocrat 2 / cleric 9
- One advanced armorless cavalier (constable) 12
- One twice-advanced meladaemon who already used Horrid Wilting and one use of its quickened Magic Missiles

When life lets me, I ready .txt character sheets in advance for all characters I rebuild.

This helps me greatly because templates often exchange or change how class features work and it's also helpful to have a list of all combat options sorted by action type.

The file also holds:

  • a counter of all per-day or per-encounter abilities
  • a tally of ki/grit/panache points
  • rounds of rage, bardic performance or similar abilities if it's likely it will matter in a single combat
  • rounds of conditions applied by the party or by allies.

Yet I don't feel like I'm in control of it all, and I'm not the kind of DM that likes to just swing with it.

Keeping track of every effect of PC attacks (usually damage + debuff + another debuff if I fail a save which I have to roll while taking notes and answering questions and checking character sheets and checking rules) is hard and I often forget to keep into account that tanglefoot bag, and what does staggered do anyways, and was this character prone?

So, from yesterday's game:

- My mooks always used their Challenge, modified by the Order's specifics, and it being a swift action never interfered with action economy.
- I've lost count of who still had the Defending the Pride maneuver available and therefore couldn't determine if the enemy with all of its allies in range. And when not everyone was in range I failed to use a different AC count for those. Which didn't matter in the end because in round 2 I had players hit the regular AC written in the sheet and from round 3 onwards I completely forgot there were three other mooks that could use that maneuver, let alone refresh it spending grit.
- I never used the other two maneuvers, Enduring Shell and Enraging Strike.
- Luckily, I never got the option to charge someone. I would have forgotten about the charge bonus, the AC malus and the cavalier's Banner ability, despite reading it like three times during the whole session. Why do I know? At one point I slapped myself in the forehead for not having used it. Then I had to think about how the previous round went to realize that the NPC didn't charge, she just walked in and attacked.
- I completely forgot to use the Bodyguard feat for a free +3 to AC thanks to Aid Allies. Wasted resources!
Tactician? What does Tactician even do apart from sharing a feat whose benefit I can't recall? Wait, which feat did I choose?
What about the Dazzling Display feat, especially in that first round where the PCs were in a corridor, blocked by one of the mooks, and I went on to shoot awfully ineffective arrows?
I remembered to ask if any effect had any descriptors in order to see if the bonus to saves from Banner would have been useful, but I forgot about Lion's Call. That +1 to hit never did any difference, luckily.
I don't know how it happened but I saw that the character had the Improved Iron Will feat right when I needed it.

So it looks like I've both been lacking in completing my character sheet (my list of things I can do with each action type was missing pieces), I was constantly referencing the list of feats, maneuvers and class abilities instead of the list of things I could do and basically forgot to use 3/4 of them anyway.

Let's not talk about the undead. I have no idea what the undead subtype entices. I have no idea what some of the monster's class features (especially domain powers) or racial features do. I mean, I didn't rebuild that character so I just ran it by the book. The statblocks are lacking and D&D 4e pampered me with its complete statblocks and limited list of conditions.

Luckily the other human NPC got paralyzed early and did nothing the whole fight and the outsider went well despite forgetting to take an AoO due to the threatened range.

The actual question

What can I do to streamline and automate most of these things, with the aim to make less of a mess and enjoy the game more?


Context: why am I asking?

(A.k.a. "don't you have a plan of your own, Zachiel?")

I'm currently thinking about using MapTools with a Pathfinder framework but I have no idea if the frameworks do what I need (keeping track of everchanging bonuses, listing all things a character can do possibly at the right time - like asking me if I want to use power attack or lunge when I declare that I want to attack - and possibly applying buffs according to where characters are on the map, being compatible with Path of War material).

On the other hand, readying characters in MapTools looks a worse hassle than my current method, so I'm asking this question in order to see if there's any alternative.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Do the players still feel that their PCs are being challenged despite you feeling like you aren't playing the NPCs to the hilt? (I think answers may take different approaches if this is a you issue, a player issue, or a combination of both.) Also, I hope there's an answer to this other than, like, Let it go or Get an assistant; I often feel exactly the same way and don't really want to do either. \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Jun 29 at 14:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ I feel that not playing the NPCs to the hilt because I forget things is something that should not happen in the game world. So it's very much a "me" thing. Maybe if I was better at this I could stop adding the advanced template to everything, maybe I would need the extra HP and hit chance anyway. Sure "I" don't like monsters dying before they can do their thing. One player feels like they're needing to rest too much (he plays path of war, maybe he's frustrated with the alchemist going nova every single encounter, while I'm fine playing "how many days will this take you?") \$\endgroup\$ – Zachiel Jun 29 at 15:54
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Disclaimer: I am not associated with Lone Wolf Development, I simply enjoy their products.


I use Hero Lab Classic for this.

I find that it allows me to quickly create characters and not have to worry too much about the underlying math in MPathfinder for each character. It also allows me to easily apply and know what abilities a character has that are relevant.


Pros:

1. Character Creation is easy.

  • For generating ability scores, there is already a built in point buy calculator, and default arrays for NPC's, making it easy to change your ability scores, and it auto-calculates their bonuses for anything that is based upon that score.

  • Instead of having to look up all the class features, BAB, Skills, and Saves for say a Fighter 10, Hero lab will automatically apply those to your character after you add 10 levels of fighter to the character. For things like fighter bonus feats, there will be a field that will allow you to select only feats that are allowed.

2. Keeping track of activated bonuses and abilities is easy.

Hero Lab consists of several different tabs, one of them ("In-Play") manages your activated abilities for a character, such as power attack or a Barbarian's Rage. When you activate these abilities it will adjust the calculations for the relevant fields. There's also a tab called "Adjust" for applying the effects of spells such as enlarge person, or the abilities of allies such as Inspire Courage.

There are also different summary sections for the character listing out relevant things, for example under the "Armory" Summary it lists all the different weapons you have as well as your armor. Under the "Specials" Summary, it lists any important special abilities such as the different immunities granted by the Undead Type. There's also a few other summaries for gear, skills, activatable abilities, etc.

3. Keeping track of character wealth

It's easy to see how much money you have on hand, and how much value your overall equipment is worth. It also has a journal for adding gold and experience to your character so you can keep track of when and how you obtained it. Finally, it has a transaction log for your recent purchases/sells.

4. There's an editor for adding content.

While a bit complex, the editor allows you to add homebrewed or 3rd party content. Additionally there is a lot of material available by the community, and this material will have updates pushed by members of the community.


Cons:

1. It's expensive to start using with all the material available.

I've built up my collection of stuff for Hero Lab over the years, so I didn't have any super noticeable cost of acquisition. However, if you wanted to sit down and have the same amount of content as I do, you'd be spending a big chunk of cash. This means that unless you want to spend a lot of money, a lot of content will not be available for usage (feats, classes, spells, etc).

2. Sometimes things are off.

Sometimes abilities will not let you select certain things they should, or be calculated incorrectly. This may not be noticeable and is something you have to keep an eye out for (notably I've found some bonuses stacking when they shouldn't or being applied when they shouldn't be on).

3. New books aren't available at the same time they are released as a PDF.

Hero Lab typically pushes an update once a month for content, this means that you typically have to wait a few weeks for the latest book to be available for usage (more if there is complex stuff added).

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1, this is as good as it gets - but PF is still super complex, it’s not going to make you pick the optimal set of NPC powers to use in a round, but you can apply spells and conditions and turn on power attack and whatnot and it will calculate it all in for you. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Jun 29 at 17:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ It will, however, give you a list (the Special tab) of every ability available as well as most activatable attack/defense abilities and tracked resources (In-Play tab) \$\endgroup\$ – Ifusaso Jun 30 at 0:00
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My recommendation is to have physical "character cards" for each individual NPC. They don't need to be overly complicated or verbose, just what effects you plan to have them use (attacks, special attacks, spell damage/DCs), anything that's expended (arrows, 1/day special attacks, spell slots, prepared spells), and their defenses (HP, AC, saves, DR, resistances, and immunities). When an individual gets hit with an effect, write it on their card. When they use a 1/day ability, cross it off. Since it's a physical card, you can make copies of template cards and make notes of details for individuals, and they persist between games so you don't forget anything.

Hope this helps!

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