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Is it feasible to run a Pathfinder game where the players don't know the rules?

I have a group that's interested in the setting of Pathfinder, but are put off by PF's reputation for character design and combat being math/optimisation problems. It's just not something they're interested in. My goal is to reduce crunch for them.

What I have in mind to avoid the character design issue is making their characters in a sort of interview, where I roll the relevant dice, ask questions and make a character that matches what they say.

For example:

GM: It's a dangerous world. How do you survive? Strength of arms, magical power, or the protection of your allies?

Player: Magic.

GM: How did you receive your magical abilities? Divine favour for devoted service, extended study at the side of a master, or innate power?

Player: Innate power.

GM: Your power comes from some ancient mingling of a powerful being with humankind. What was that being?

Whatever they answer at this point, use the rules for a thematically appropriate sorcerer bloodline that has simple rules.

GM: Your power comes from your ancestry, but is unlocked by — and reflects — your will. The powers you gain reflect this. What drives you? Offensive might, defence and escape, or a variety of useful tricks?

Choose starting spells according to the answer.

Etc...

To avoid combat feeling like a math problem for them, I intend to run sessions in a similar way: they will know what weaponry, skills and spells they have in a non-mechanical sense; they will also develop a general idea of how effective different options are with experience. Rolls will be behind the screen and difficult mechanics will have the edges filed off in favour of speed: if a character takes a fairly normal combat action ("I shoot it with my crossbow") I should have started to describe the result within 5 seconds. Something slightly more complex ("I throw a fireball at the middle of the pack of orcs") within 10 seconds.

I'd aim to mostly follow the combat rules, with frequent use of "Eh, close enough" to simplify unnecessarily complex situations. I'd use turn order openly: combat starts and they say what they want to do, initiative would to decide who struck first or moved into position fastest. I'm unsure about minis on a map: they're good for illustration but slow things down and encourage worrying about the details.

Is it feasible to handle all the rules as the GM, with the players not knowing or handling them? If it's feasible, what does experience playing this way reveal about how well it works or where it fails?

I'm not dead-set on Pathfinder, but I do have a strong preference for it as it's the system I know best and I have a ton of sourcebooks for it. That said, I'm open to the possibility that PF isn't a viable system for this plan.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Warning: Answers not based on experience with this situation will be deleted. Assumptions about how well/badly this would work are not admissible as support for answers to this question. We're looking for hands-on expertise rather than theoretical ideas or thoughts. Thanks! \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Mar 21 '17 at 16:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ Information about the players would be useful. Are they kids? People familiar with other RPGs? If so, which RPGs? Other games? What about Pathfinder in particular makes you want to play a game in it? \$\endgroup\$ – Yakk Mar 21 '17 at 19:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Yakk they're adults, highly intelligent and mathematically literate, but more interested in RP than tactical optimisation (though i appear to have overestimated how strongly they feel on this). One has played a bunch of RPGs, the other 3 have played a single game of Fiasco. Pathfinder is the only system I'm familiar enough with that I'd be happy GMing, also one of the players has a long-standing desire to try D&D (which I naturally consider PF to be a version of). \$\endgroup\$ – frodoskywalker Mar 21 '17 at 20:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ After watching the first HarmonQuest episode, I'd say folks can definitely play Pathfinder with minimal knowledge of the rules & still have a good time. :-) \$\endgroup\$ – RobertF Mar 22 '17 at 16:30
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Yes, you can do that. I've done it.

It's a lot of work.

I used it to teach a group of kids how to play. As we went along, I introduced more and more rules to them to take the workload off.

The most difficult challenge in the beginning is to get the kids to know just what the character can do. You should start out with one or two key abilities and then add more abilities as they get use to them. Fighters are pretty easy at the beginning and their complexity ramps up nicely with learning. Sorcerers (as in your example) are almost as easy. The advanced classes that have lots of options are probably not well suited for beginners unless you want to do a lot of work. Even Clerics can be a bit of a pain with their ability to memorize most cleric spells in the book. I generally have the deity grant the ones that will likely be useful that day until they are up for the challenge of wading through the spell lists.

Give them a simplified character sheet that has stats, skills they can use, a combat section with weapons, maneuvers they can take and spells they can cast. I also add notes for stats and skills (high, mid, low) so they have an idea of how likely they are to be successful.

Then have a small listing of combat options: move + action, double move, and full attack. I give a brief description for each.

I then give them the dice they will need, telling them to roll the d20 for most things. As they learn what dice to roll for each thing, I have them write on the character sheet what die/dice the various actions use. This helps them learn.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Might be worth mention that this is probably an awesome time to use spell-cards. Just give them the cards for what they can cast that day: i.imgur.com/58w1Y0f.jpg \$\endgroup\$ – Patrick M Mar 21 '17 at 13:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ @PatrickM, Yes! Also, there are condition cards like Bless, Sickened, etc. Those would also help a lot. \$\endgroup\$ – ShadoCat Mar 21 '17 at 23:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ I've done this with kids as well, and yes it can be done (and is fun, though a lot of work). I find that for people who don't know the rules, you can just tell them what they need to roll, leaving out all the mechanics behind the value. They still get the "oh no, will I be able to beat a 16??" excitement but aren't overloaded with math. Like you said though - it's good to gradually offload more to the players as they become more comfortable. \$\endgroup\$ – A C Mar 22 '17 at 15:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ @AC, Yes, I always have the players roll. It gets the whole RPG vibe going for them and gets them curious about the rules. If I didn't want players to roll, I'd dig out and dust off Amber. \$\endgroup\$ – ShadoCat Mar 22 '17 at 17:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie, I added that mostly because I didn't think many people were old enough to remember the RPG and was trying to point out that it was an RPG. I suppose I could have used the mineral instead. Thanks for the edit. \$\endgroup\$ – ShadoCat Mar 22 '17 at 20:22
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There are two main problems with what you are trying to do.

The first is that your players may not know what options they have available if they don't know the rules. For example faced with a locked door do they know they can pick the lock, sunder it, etc. You need to list out all the options which risks turning things into multiple choice.

The second problem is the amount that you as the DM need to keep track of. As well as tracking all the NPCs you are now dealing with the PCs as well.

To make this work there are two options I would consider here depending on the players and their interests and prior knowledge.

1. Use a different system

It sounds like you want the pathfinder setting but are not keen on the rules. There is nothing to stop you using that setting with any rules you like. This can be tricky in some places where the setting and game mechanics are closely coupled so you should definitely look at the rules you are thinking of using and see how the Pathfinder concepts translate into them.

Different flavours of the D&D family are reasonably easy to translate between and I've done that frequently. The more different the system the harder the transition will be. You will need to rework the encounters as appropriate but all the role playing, maps, and basically everything except rules text can be run as-is.

2. Simplify Pathfinder

What I've done in the past when introducing new players to the game is to restrict the options. For example if you say just to use a restricted list of 4 or 5 of the simpler classes (for example one or two basic classes and a couple of unchained ones) and ignore traits/etc you can simplify things a lot. Start at level 1 and walk them through their first few choices.

During combat I started off with only the most basic (move, attack, full attack, 5' step, AoO) and then introduced more options over time and as they leveled up. This way you have less to keep track of and in my experience the players have always quickly got the hang of it once they see it in action and start to take some of the rules handling back into their own hands.

That is then the point where you can decide that everyone is happy or you can choose to add more complexity and start to hand some of the mechanics over to the players to keep things manageable.

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    \$\begingroup\$ One advantage of option 1 is that the Pathfinder setting and mechanics are exceptionally poorly coupled-- the setting will break down much slower with a system that can support its aspect-based method of culture groups. I'd solidly recommend FATE 2.0 for this purpose. \$\endgroup\$ – Please stop being evil Mar 21 '17 at 20:49
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Most of my experience with GMing has been with players that have little to no initial understanding of the game's mechanics. It can be frustrating at times, but you can have a very enjoyable game so long as you make a few modifications to your expectations.

Role-playing over roll-playing

Combat will run very slowly. Running a traditional dungeon crawl would be painful. The answer is to tailor your game to minimize the number of dice rolls. For example, instead of adding a random encounter where they fight goblins during a trip between cities, I would add a fun encounter where they chat with a group of traders and learn more about the world. Save combat for situations where it is absolutely necessary to your story / game.

Story preparation over stats preparation

Running a game for players who do not understand, or perhaps do not want to understand, the rules requires that you approach preparation differently. Instead of focusing on innovative combat encounters and challenges, focus on compelling stories and NPCs. The players won't care about your cautiously balanced encounter that fairly tests their characters but they will care if the town they visit is full of fascinating people.

Reduce complexity

You've already thought of this, but just to reiterate. When you run combat (or anything else that requires rules), try to minimize its complexity. For example, I would not have a monster perform a combat maneuver for quite a while. If that means that you need to fudge the rules a bit, fudge them! Also, slow character progression... nothing confuses new players like new options.

Do let them roll

My only objection to the approach you initially outlined is that I would let the players roll the dice. The physical process of rolling a dice gives them a connection to the game and their characters. I would also verbally note how you are working out the outcome of their dice roll. Given time the players will start to absorb the language and patterns of skill checks etc. and will be able to play without as much hand holding. Also, it will make outcomes of actions feel less arbitrary to them. Even if that takes you an extra 10 seconds to resolve something, I think it will pay dividends in the long run.

Assign reading

One of the main reasons that I GM for Pathfinder is the ready availability of high-quality, legal, free rules references. Even if your players are a bit rules-averse, they can at least ready the combat summary in the SRD. Even if you are still running most of the actions this will at least give them a conceptual framework.

Use character creation to teach them about the game

The interview approach to character creation works well and is similar to the approach I take. However, I make the player write everything down on their sheet themselves. This allows them to familiarize themselves with their character sheets and the abilities that they have. Although the details of what everything on the sheet means may elude them, feats like improved initiative or power attack suggest their mechanics through their titles. Assuming you are starting the characters at level 1, there won't be much on their sheets and they will get a sense of who their character is from their stats and abilities. For example, "your intelligence is 14 which is really good so your character is smart, but your charisma is 8 so there is something about you that most people find uncomfortable. What is it?"

Allow the rules to evolve

I've been GMing Pathfinder for 4 years now and various rulings, house rules, misunderstandings on my part etc. have radically changed how I apply the rules. If I have resolved a situation in a way that my group found fair and entertaining, I continue to do it that way... sometimes in direct contravention of the rules. With players who do not have prior conceptions about how things should work you can really tailor the way you apply the rules to the needs of your group. I actually really enjoy this.

Above all, have fun

Unless they develop a real understanding of the rules you aren't really playing a game, you are having fun with your friends while collaboratively telling a story. So set aside (or at least reduce) the emphasis you place on fairness or consequences and focus on everyone having a good time. Is a player super sad because their character died because they charged into a dumb encounter? Well the gods still have use for them and they find themselves restored with a holy mission... maybe even one that runs against the goals of the rest of the party. Good times!

Hope that helps!

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  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 for story preparation over stats preparation and assign reading. It's important to know the rolls/rules, but more important for the story to be engaging than for the combats to be intricate. \$\endgroup\$ – smiley trashbag Mar 21 '17 at 17:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ “Rollplaying” is a derogatory term that has no place in our community. The only purpose it serves is to insult others as “not true roleplayers,” and is a violation of the core Be Nice policy on Stack Exchange. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Mar 22 '17 at 20:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ blp, is the essence of the intended meaning of that heading “Social encounters over combat encounters”? If so, something like that would be a less unintentionally divisive wording. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Mar 22 '17 at 20:06
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Disclaimer: not Pathfinder, but written system-agnostic

tl;dr: potentially rewarding, undeniably difficult.

I'm currently running a Dark Heresy 2e game with four players who I've known personally for a long time, but most of them are setting-illiterate, rules-illiterate, and roleplaying-newbies. Similar to your listed example, I would read them more of the fluffy descriptions of what their characters' chargen options were while also giving them full access to all source material.

I've done things to make it easier for them to learn the rules, like giving each player a notecard for each piece of gear with all the info on it, helping them with their character sheets and tracking/spending exp, knowing what their different combat/social/investigative actions are, writing synopses of last session, giving them dramatis personae sheets to track their contacts, etc.

I also have been trying to use maps to make combats more tactical and clear to everyone involved what's happening, but have also frequently used the "eh, close enough" ruling, as well as simplifying what might be overly complex rules/rolls for certain maneuvers.

All that personal experience amounts to this answer:

It is extremely hard to do this, but as a GM it gives you even more power to construct a narrative. That power, however, comes at the cost of player agency and input, and much, much, Much, MUCH, MUCH more work for you as the GM. This is a trade-off that might only be temporary, as your players are (hopefully) weaned off of relying on you for every bit of rules knowledge and adjudication and instead put in some effort to maintain their own characters. The less input they give, the more you have to guess, and the less they know about the system, the less useful or accurate the input they do give will be.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for the synopsis idea, I do that with new players too and it really helps keep them thinking about the game from week to week. Also, kudos on doing this with Dark Heresy. I was a player in a DH campaign under similar circumstances and found the rule set difficult to follow, so my GM had to be quite tolerant. It worked, but it required a lot of flexibility on everyone's part. \$\endgroup\$ – blp Mar 22 '17 at 16:30
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I've tried this sort of hide-the-mechanics-and-feed-them-descriptions approach with a system of similar complexity (Reign/ORE) and it was a pretty terrible experience.

  • It was slow. Even playing one-on-one, a lot of the player experience can be described as "waiting on the GM." More so than usual. They're just sorta sitting there while I fiddle with game mechanics.

  • We never "hit a groove." My typical gaming experience is that play speeds up as a group settles into a shared language mixing fictional descriptions and mechanical shorthand; here, it always felt slow and muddled, like a perpetual first session.

    Now, I can't speak for the long term, because we failed and scrubbed the campaign before then. But it felt like we made no progress at all before the game fell apart.

So, why was it so annoying for us?

The key problem is that you're not actually reducing complexity, you're just rewording things a lot and then making players navigate complex information in purely verbal form, without the aid of built-in comprehension-aiding structures like layout, "templated" language, and game-mechanical cross-references.

It's actually obfuscation rather than simplification. And, in my experience, any benefit to "immersion" is small because crunchy, challenge-oriented game rules tend to produce outcomes that feel weird unless we're already thinking within the game's frame very tightly (which is a lot easier when we actually see and know the rules).

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I'm open to the possibility that PF isn't a viable system for this plan.

Having run multiple games for new players, I have to say that if you want a game with less crunch, Pathfinder can do it, but it won't run as well. You're much better off going for a system like 13th Age. There's a lot that could be said on this subject, which I would happily elaborate on, but for now, here's two brief discussions about why 13th Age is good for new players and those who don't want crunch.

To Clarify: I never teach mechanics that I don't need to. It's boring for the players, and they won't keep up with them if they're not immediately useful. What I typically do with new players is teach them the mechanics that is absolutely necessary for their class as the game goes along. I use scenarios that their class is more easily able to handle. I customize the encounters to lean toward the new players and give them hands-on experience.

There is a cut-off where you simply can't leave out any more mechanics and keep the system functioning as intended, and with 3.5/PF, that cut-off is higher than other systems. For instance, you can ignore dice rolls for out of combat situations if you can get your players to roleplay, but you can't get rid of combat maneuvers if the class is built around it. Simplifying past that cut-off point is not really optional, since at that point, you're trying not to run the system that you've chosen to run. Once that happens you often find yourself in one of two situations; either you're trying to create new mechanics to bypass the ones you don't want to use or settling for running the system as is, which means you're no longer trying to run it without having to explain all the rules.


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