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TL;DR: The bard player is arguing that lingering composition is a Performance check, and another player is stating it's Casting a Spell (Focus spell).

I have a player playing a polymath bard with lingering composition.

This player insists that when casting the composition Focus spell, on the composition’s Performance check, a critical failure is the same as a failure, and the bard doesn’t expend the Focus point (because the Focus spell requires a Performance check to determine duration, and lingering composition doesn't have a critical failure entry, only a failure entry).

My ruling as GM is that the bard is casting a Focus spell, and that the Casting a Spell rule is the active component, not the Performance check.

Lingering Composition: https://2e.aonprd.com/Spells.aspx?ID=389

Casting a Focus Spell: https://2e.aonprd.com/Rules.aspx?ID=276

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The focus point is not expended. Per the rules on skill descriptions:

Most skills include entries for success and failure, as well as descriptions of what occurs on a critical success or a critical failure. If either of the critical entries is absent, treat those results as a success or failure, as normal.

While the action used to cast the spell is the "Cast a Spell" activity (indeed, the failure effect even refers to not spending "the Focus Point for casting this spell"), the check being made is a skill check, and so follows those rules, just as it would follow the rules for saving throws if it were a saving throw, or for an attack if it were an attack, though they seem to follow the same rules regarding missing entries:

If a feat, magic item, spell, or other effect does not list a critical success or critical failure, treat is as an ordinary success or failure instead.

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The player is using the Cast a Spell activity. The rules of the specific spell state that as a part of that activity, they must make a Performance check.

The Cast a Spell activity is used to cast Lingering Composition. Cast a Spell doesn't have any specific critical success, success, failure, or critical failure outcomes. The outcomes depend on the spell's entry.

In the case of Lingering Composition those outcomes depend on a Performance check. As you said, there is no critical failure outcome for this Performance check - the only possible outcomes are critical success, success, and failure. The Failure entry for Lingering Composition says that the focus point is not used. Therefore, on a failure the focus point is not spent.

Your players' arguments about whether this is a Cast a Spell activity or a Performance check are both (partially) correct. They two things are not mutually exclusive. Many activities require checks. As another example, the Demoralize action requires an Intimidation check.

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