Is Pathfinder too Adventure-centric?

I think it’s safe to say that over the last four decades D&D has gone through changes great and small. As each different edition has been created and refined, it’s designers have stamped their own individual mark on the game. While 1st Edition AD&D and Pathfinder both flow from the same wellspring, they are markedly different games.

Slime Attack! by Matt Morrow
Slime Attack! by Matt Morrow


Obviously, the two games are mechanically different. But more importantly, I think the style and intent of the game has changed and evolved over the years.

(And at this point, I feel compelled to point out and acknowledge we all have our favourite editions of D&D; I’m not here to bash any particular edition. I don’t care what version of the game you play or which is your favourite; if you are having fun, it’s all good).

That said, a question occurred to me several months ago that has been clattered about it my head ever since: Is Pathfinder too Adventure-ocentric?

What do I mean by that?

Well, I think it’s a pretty simple question. It seems to me the prevailing style of play has changed over the last four decades. In the good old days (warning, I’m wearing my goggles of rose-tinted Gygax appreciation +5) it seemed the adventure wasn’t the be-all and end-all of the game. Sure we spent loads of time battling orcs, slaying dragons and looting ancient tombs. But we also spent a lot of time exploring towns, consulting sages, dodging taxmen, recruiting henchmen and–if we were lucky at higher levels–running our fief.

Almost all of that seems to have fallen by the wayside. (Clearly, the Kingmaker campaign is somewhat of an exception to this). If you compare the number of pages devoted to designing and running the wider campaign–as opposed to mere adventuring–in the 1st Edition DMG (surely the greatest gaming book ever published) against those dedicated to the same thing in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Core Rulebook you’ll see what I mean.

It seems to me that 1st Edition characters had much more of a life outside the adventure than the current crop of young Pathfinder whipper snappers.  (Imagine, I placed a smile face here). In 1st Edition, time was another resource a wise player had to manage and what happened outside the dungeon’s or adventure’s bounds was important; it often got significant table-time (at least in my campaigns) and could spell the difference between success or failure in the dungeon.

For example, ask yourself, when was the last time a Pathfinder character actually consulted a sage? Don’t get me wrong, I love the inclusion of knowledge skills in Pathfinder–they empower the PCs–and help speed up play but consulting a sage can spawn all manner of fun role-playing moments or side quests.

In Pathfinder, it seems to me that anything happening outside the dungeon or adventure is little more than an annoyance or hindrance which should be dealt with as quickly as possible so it doesn’t get in the way of the fun. Witness, for example, the differences in how the two editions deal with making magic items; one could form the basis of an entire session as the procedure and various items needed are researched and hunted down while the other is little more than bookkeeping. (I suggest you use the method you enjoy the most; personally I’m somewhere in the middle.)

Now, of course, you could say that a lot of these changes have been made to remove the barriers to fun. And you’d be right. But, as the game has become more mechanically robust and complex the temptation is to use these self-same mechanics as much as possible. Combat is fun! Searching for a sage or convincing someone to make you a magic item isn’t!

But in merely focusing on the adventure and the pursuit of XP are we not missing out on some of the stuff that makes the game such a rich, engaging and—above all—social pastime? As GMs by forcing/cajoling or incentivising the players to engage with the campaign world outside of the dungeon or adventure we are in turn forcing ourselves to design more of that world; to design more cool stuff with which the PCs can interact.

That’s good as far as it goes—most GMs are creative types after all—but it has one other far more important result. Characters “forced” to interact with a richly detailed world themselves become more interesting, detailed and rounded. They become more than just a collection of statistics, skills, feats and combat manoeuvres or spell selections. They develop actual personalities and social ties to the campaign world. They have hopes and dreams. They accumulate obligations, favours, friends and enemies. They leap from the page. They live in our imaginations.

Our current obsession with character builds and mechanics is a direct result of our unconscious myopic focus on the adventure as the be-all and end-all of gaming.

Widen your focus. Go beyond the adventure. Your game will be better for it.

What Do You Think?

Agree? Disagree? Let me know, in the comments below.


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Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

26 thoughts on “Is Pathfinder too Adventure-centric?”

  1. A fair question, and I cannot refute it. However, I think I would rephrase it as “too path-centric”. From what I can see there is a dearth of exploration left. Yes, you go places and do things, but they are largely anticipated and provided for. Back in the day the material provided was less detailed, and thus the DM had to come up with more of it — and the PCs had to ‘look elsewhere’ for information and resources.

  2. Agree. In my recently started campaign the party spent several entire sessions just exploring the Lonely Coast settlements of Wolverton, Hosford, and Swallowfeld. Getting to know the inhabitants, their foibles and struggles, and hearing of strange goings-on provides two key benefits: 1) it’s just fun in the moment, 2) it provides hooks to, foreshadowing of, and motivation for future adventures.

    It’s not as exciting to rescue “Random NPC X” from peril as it is to save people you know and have a history with, and it’s cool when the obnoxious guard captain becomes a grudgingly respectful ally. (Not to mention it’s a great twist when a trusted innkeep turns out to be a murderous cultist.)

    Having richly detailed materials to work from makes this much more realistic time-wise over coming up with my own set of sites and NPCs. Of course I provide my own flavor as needed for my own and my players’ enjoyment, but having a structure to start from makes it all possible. So consider this a hearty recommendation for the campaign backdrops available here.

  3. I’m not sure its necessarily PF, perhaps a trend in styles at some gaming tables which flows from the way society in general has changed as well as online RPGs, but even so I remember “hack-n-slash” debates when were using the internet via 1200baud modems and .ftp or newsgroups.

    My PF campaign regularly goes entire sessions w/o combat, in fact its been 3 sessions of about 2-3hr each since the last combat. In that time, the group explored several rooms search for clues, negotiated some traps, followed a blood trail through a tunnel to a warehouse, and searched for their kidnapped friend among the crates while the building was burning down around them, and then spent nearly 2hr RPing the first in-game interaction with one of the PCs families from their back-story. I started gaming on Basic D&D around 1980 – but those early games were almost exclusively dungeon crawls – I seem to recall the Expert rules blue-box contained the info for outdoor adventures. Although the DMG had things for out of combat, my “exploration” style didn’t really kick off until I purchased the Unearthed Arcana and Wilderness Survival guides. Non-weapon proficiencies and designing my own campaign world profoundly changed my style of gaming.
    PF itself as a system is number intensive, and you’re right about the CoreRules and magic. However, the release in 2015 of Unchained, includes rules for automatic bonus progression, which allows PCs to keep pace with the game math, w/o needing magic items. A year into our PF experience, I just recently started using those because it definitely fits my style and my groups style more. I feel magic and/or the math in the background aren’t root-cause for some groups to have a less role-play, exploration oriented style of gaming, I believe that’s personal preference play style of the group, and is often based on the GM’s plot line and story hooks rather than the system.

    1. If your gaming group focuses on running through adventure after adventure without exploring the towns and world around them it doesnt matter which game you play. That same group could play that style in pathfinder or 1st edition. This could be based on a few things. The player may not feel comfortable or just like that general play style. Also the GM may not good at going of script. Yes generally a GM is going to do well improvising and world building on the spot, but some GM are simply not good at it. This seems just to be a style of playing that is most popular and i would tend to put the blame on the players and not the particular game edition.

    2. I think that’s a fair good point. Society’s approach to gaming has certainly changed over the last few decades and the gamers of today are not necessarily those of yesteryear in their outlooks and what they look to get from gaming.

  4. I would also opine that of the 7 types of gamers Robin describes (, forums/chat’s probably tend to draw the Power Gamer and facilitate ease of debate about what build is better.

    I’ve started numerous threads on the Paizo message boards about GM styles, enhancing/designing game worlds, sharing ideas with other GMs, etc. I don’t believe any of them have generated more than 50 posts. Other GMs are willing to share ideas, but “players” often don’t voice opinions or ideas on how to make better stories so the volume isn’t there.

    However – if you post combat optimization questions/opinions (especially if you compare casting classes to non-casting classes), you can hit 50 in a day and over 200 easily enough. Players far outnumber GMs, and thus the volume of posts/threads are likely very skewed towards those kind of adventure/combat oriented themes, making it appear that the PF system itself is skewed towards that type of gaming.

  5. The 1St book of the Rise of the Rune Lords begins with a series of small quests and events in the main settlement. While I agree that there is less design effort placed on events outside the main adventurers, I don’t know that Pathfinder as a system excludes or negates that style of play. Take the skill Diplomacy for example.

    Using Diplomacy, one function is gathering info. You make a roll and it represents 1-4 hours worth of random chatting to pick up the knowledge you want.

    Imagine if the GM simply asked “how do you do that?” Then they offered a Circumstance bonus for any interaction with a recurring contact like a sage. What’s more, you might also just describe what the 1-4 hours looks like: visiting the local pub, throwing darts with commoners, bribing the bartender,and so on.

    The system doesn’t build in a “name level” to run a stronghold either, so who says you have to wait 9 levels anymore. Say the first adventure takes you to a small ruin outside of town. You clear out the goblins, loot the place and leave right? Except the dwarf cleric took Knowledge: Engineering on a whim and uses it to assess the ruin. With a bit of spit and elbow grease the place is livable.

    Instead of buying magic armor the party decides to fix the old tower. There are rules for hiring laborers and you can make up a time table. As work progresses the PCs keep the returning goblins at bay. By the time their tower is ready the party is 2nd level and has a reputation as heroes.

    Pathfinder is nothing more than a different set of rules to play the same games we have for decades. How you interpret and implement them is up to you.

    1. Certainly the +2/-2 can be your friend as a GM. I’m a huge fan–as you might have guessed–of describing things and actions.

      It is, of course, up to the players how they interpret and implement Pathfinder’s rules. I just fear that the weight of rules dedicated to–for example–combat subconsciously lead us to use them more. I guess also, PCs are tougher and more capable than they used to be, which in turn reduces the risk in fighting. If there is less risk to fighting, you’ll probably do it more as your are more likely to enjoy the benefits to success rathe than the consequences of failure.

  6. My anecdotal experience has been that most of the groups I play with are “adventure/action-centric”. We’re in a Kingmaker campaign, and half of the players don’t really seem to engage the world beyond what’s on the battlemat. Some of the players I can interest in the diplomacy of the other houses, how things stand among their families, and so on.

    I don’t know that it’s a PF-only phenomenon, since most of my other groups are in about the same boat: at least half of the players are hack & slashers.

    In the wake of some recent blog reading (including this one), I’ve been writing more of my games to have more NPC relationships and potential for interaction. On the flip side, I may be playing, not running, when the PF group switches campaigns next year; I hope that I can remember to do more world-encountering. I’ll just have to see what happens.

  7. The Pathfinder core rulebook comprises mainly the essential rules for running combat and some aspects of exploration. As such it appears to favour combat because more than any other activity, this aspect of gaming appears to be favoured. It is just as easy to create adventures rife with rumours, which require players survive wildernesses while traversing dangerous terrain (and possibly its inhabitants, if they fail to engage with them and extend sensitive diplomacy) to reach a knowledgeable sage using D&D 5e or Pathfinder as any other rules system but the pressure to produce closed single event adventures has deprecated this type of open-ended gamplay. It is difficult to estimate how long it might take for such adventures to take and so for limited game time games they are difficult to run. Random monsters and rumours suffer similarly – they take unpredictable amounts of time.

    That said, perhaps an emphasis on progress and achievement and a unwillingness to award XP for achievements other than combat or high risk exploits curiously embedded in the rules might have created a shift.

    1. Having lived through the transition I can tell you that it was the 3 and 3.5 which path finder is man to replace the that the transition came. There were two factors one was the XP went from Mostly dice related activities to all combat activities. The other was the development of a role-based skill system which led the role-playing aspects of social interaction to become a quasi combat dice mechanic as opposed to roleplay. before third and came out 90% of groups wouldn’t stand for the kind of hack and slash that has become normal by the time 3.5 was widely adopted 90% of the group’s did it.

  8. Agreed. I love Pathfinder, and it is one of my favorite incarnations of D&D, but you hit the nail on the head. I miss my older players back from college/high school because they use to do all those things, seeking sages, building their own little empire, etc., but the new players, nope, it’s all about getting the best bang for your buck on character creation.

  9. pathfinder has alot of issues… lack of customization… a physics engine which doesn’t map their recommended setting very well… sketchy details on how things work… an imbalanced attribute list… inconsistent weapon handling… a clunky magic system with no political or philosophical structure…

    but yeah i guess you could add on ‘adventure centric’ to the list. especially since so many of the sapient peoples in their ‘bestiary’ do not have fully developed cultures and seem just there to fight and be killed rather than to actually be roleplayed and interacted with…

  10. You present valid points in your article and other readers have as well. In the world of digital RPGs like World of Warcraft and Skyrim, the player base is much more accustomed to action adventure style role playing than some of the older gamers. It used to be that DMs would spend weeks or months getting information together to write up a good adventure, poring over tomes much like a sage to build the perfect NPC encounter to take the party where they needed to go.

    Now it seems like power gamers are more common, or maybe just more vocal, than the story driven gamers of 1st Edition Insert Game Name Here. I remember a younger me playing a 1st level cleric who felt it was his duty to administer last rights and bury any foes slain by the party. Then it was okay because it allowed his story to develop within the party dynamic and it actually created more opportunities for role playing becuase the party was tired of digging holes. Now that character would be quickly pushed out for not min/maxing his feats and abilities or slowing the party down from murderhoboing another goblin…

    1. I agree. I think computer games “have a lot to answer for” when it comes to the style of tabletop games we now play. I also think the rise of “mechanic-rich” systems has led to us differentiating our characters through mechanics and not through flavour (background, personality and so on).

  11. I think, the statement in the tenth paragraph has it backwards. Combat isn’t fun! Interacting with the world on a role-playing faces that’s the fun! After all we are playing a role playing game are we not. The kind of play you described as typical of Pathfinder is tabletop Miniatures play like War Machine and 40k. The calling of this quote role playing games on quote is an insult to all true role players. It is time we not only renounced but denounced such players!

  12. Pathfinder accomodates many styles, but most people seem to rely on adventure paths and stand alone modules. The constraints of producing such modules makes tham mostly linear, or at least requires you to complete all sections, so that nothing is wasted. That leads to a bias on combat where you either win or lose, with the latter being largely ignored. Having only one outcome from an encounter to consider makes things simple. Side quests that can be ignored, negotiations that lead to many possible outcomes would require the books to be larger and contain content that might be wasted.

    Early DMs had to make things up as they went along and that can lead to better games. I think D&D was 5 years old before the first module was produced (shortly after I started playing). Gary Gygax didn’t see the need, but he was a genius and D&D was his life. Others do not have the same talent or time and modules/APs allow them to get 95% of the way with little effort.

  13. I flat-out asked my main player about combat versus RP-oriented sessions recently. She told me she prefers plenty of combat as a way to “blow off steam” because she already DOES things like “consult sages,” “make Diplomacy checks,” and “Profession: Optician” checks on a daily basis.

    But now with Skyrim on the Xbox, she can do that solo. My other players are definitely interested in more world-building type activities, so I definitely want to expand our efforts in that direction.

  14. Agreed. Pathfinder appeals to the metagamers looking to max their damage and ‘beat’ the dm. D&D encourages the roleplaying approach from all parties including the dm. It all comes down to the dm…write your own adventures and you’ll be more invested in the story.

  15. Yes to all of this.

    I am not at all a fan of pathfinder APs because they are SO RAILROADY. Yes, I could, as DM, make them less so, but they don’t really make it easy. And they don’t provide the tools to do so, I would need to use the excellent tools made by yourself and others to make them work that way… but I just prefer running adventures made by people less enamoured with trains.

  16. I don’t think Pathfinder created this situation. I think Pathfinder takes advantage of it. Video games had already created the players who don’t explore the world around them (remember Diablo!). I see this in my current group. I have, with one exception, players relatively new to roleplaying. All of them started playing within the last 8 years. My only exception is a friend my age (40’s) who also started with 1st edition. I was shocked when they didn’t want to explore the town, haggle over prices or research things.

  17. I think any system can be used to fit any play style. But, going by the core rules, at least, you have a fair point (Ultimate Campaign did a lot to expand Pathfinder in this regard, though, as did the Gamemastery Guide to a lesser extent).

  18. As an old timer (I had one of the original D&D sets with Ents in it, and worked for TSR for a year in about 1980) who left and came back (and played Pathfinder for about two years) and left again, I agree with your general statement.

    The economics of publishing an RPG require an income stream. When D&D was published I don’t think Gary and Dave and the Blumes were really thinking about that (none of the people who started TSR were really what we would consider businessmen these days). I think they sort of thought they’d just keep selling copies of the game and making money that way. Modules arose both out of people’s desire for content and the publisher’s need for an income stream.

    As RPGs evolved and new versions came out, some publishers because to envision a constant set of rule updates as an income stream alongside game content. But there’s a problem with that.

    People hate it. Nobody likes coming to a game only to discover that there are eight rulebooks in play that they don’t have and don’t know anything about. The easy ability to create a game among pick up players is lost when rules are constantly expanding.

    There isn’t a real solution to this problem. Publishers still require an income stream, and no players are simply going to fork over $10/month for the ability to play an RPG. Pathfinder’s solution is to have weekly pick up gaming sessions at your FLGS to attract new people to the game AND to make it necessary for budding GMs to buy copies of old modules (I, as a player, always bought the module after we played it so I could see what I missed). They also link the game to a specific setting which they continue to expand.

    By making most player introductions to the game via prewritten modules and creating a setting that goes with the game, Pathfinder actively discourages (without ill intent) the original D&D play style where the GM comes up with a world and the players wander around it. Because Pathfinder modules are written for specific play times and party sizes, GMs and players are both acculturated to very simple stories with limited path choices. It’s like episodic TV was before multi-episode story arcs became popular — everything gets wrapped up at the end of every session. In an open-world setting, you stop where the session is when the session ends, whether by exhaustion or previous engagement (or running out of snacks and drinks). The entire style of play and expectations are different.

    Again, this isn’t necessarily bad — and if it’s necessary to keep publishers in business, it’s actually good.

    But it is different from the way some of us learned to play — and probably different from the way some people do play — but it is the way the majority of players learn to play now.

    IMO, it all comes down to that income stream.

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