Arcane Thesis Vol II: Acting on Both Sides of the Screen: How the Three Action Economy Reinforces a Positive Play Experience for Both Game Masters and Players
When I set out to document my impressions of Pathfinder Second Edition, I thought I’d be able to skip praising the much lauded action economy we’ve heard so much about this past year. But after sitting down and playing the game for the first time, it became apparent just how satisfying and versatile a tool the system becomes for everyone at the table.
Characters are free to do what they want to do during their turns, which only further enhances the modular nature of archetypes. In First Edition Pathfinder multiclass characters frequently found themselves “swift action starved”, having to choose between one of a handful of buffs and being unable to spend their early combat rounds buffing themselves to their full potential. And in ambushes or during precombat buffs, they even found themselves wishing they could expend a full-round action just to get another swift action (more than once per day). Now a player can choose to stay back and buff, or go ahead and Stride-Buff-Strike. The added options let’s players more organically decide on what they’ll do each combat, increasing the assortment of viable combat tactics and therefore opening up combat to more diverse situations, even though you’re in the same party.
And that versatility doesn’t extend just to players! As a Gamemaster, I’m almost overwhelmed with the number of potential options at my fingertips. My monsters can move before and after attacking to keep distance between them and the party. They can move between attacks to try to down more than one opponent at a time. They can even give up their third attack to attempt to demoralize a party member knowing they’ll never hit with that high multiple attack penalty! There are so many more options available to me with the three-action system, and even at level 1 my monsters are more threatening and engaging to play with knowing they have a full suite of actions at their disposal instead of just a single attack against a party of five or six players!
Product Focus: Pathfinder Society
Scenario #1-01: The Absalom Initiation
I was worried about running the scenario because of a few bad reviews on the discord, but I’m happy to say that in practice they are entirely unfounded. The scenario has quite a bit going for it in terms of showing off the strengths of the new system, including secret rolls, exploration mode and the new hazard mechanics. But I want to focus on one encounter in particular, and needless to say everything from this point on has spoilers.
Spoilers Start Here!
The encounter in the Blackros Museum has received mixed reviews. There’s an out-of-control ritual slogging everyone participating for a significant chunk of damage each turn. The only way to turn off the ritual is to succeed at a very high skill check or kill up to three durable enemies while the ritual damages everyone in the room attempting to fix it. People have complained that the high DC and being zapped by the ritual each round discourages people from trying the skill checks, but I think this is a prime example of past system mastery getting in the way of seeing how well the encounter highlights the action economy.
First you have the reaction, allowing martial characters to protect their skillful compatriots by jumping in front of the negative energy. The ease by which a product can give a balanced action to players like this helps show off the strengths of the system’s modularity only possible thanks to the action economy.
Second, you have three actions per turn, and thus up to three attempts at that high DC skill check. Yes, the ritual will damage you, but when you only have to resolve 1-3 checks to stop it, being able to throw 12-18 skill checks looking for a 16-18 isn’t that unreasonable.
Third, you have three actions! That means you can attack the shadows with your first two attacks, then attempt a skill check or quaff a potion or throw a heal with the second. Heck, if the pulse of negative energy is that scary you can even use your three actions to run into the room, attempt a skill check, then run out of the room before the end of the round!
Spoilers End Here!
I know it will take players time to adjust to the new system, and typical norms of the First Edition need to be forgotten and relearned through the lens of our new paradigm. It’s painful watching the most experienced players get hit the hardest and be the most likely to recommend staying with the system they are more familiar with. The proficiency system, dying rules and action economy give more leeway for scenario authors to provide players with more diverse sets of more difficult challenges. In every second edition game I’ve run so far, the players honestly felt like they could very well be facing a total party wipe! And yet, in every game I’ve run so far the players have achieved their primary and secondary success conditions without a single death! A game that can provide that gripping sense of fear and yet give even the newest players the tools to overcome the game’s challenges is one balanced to favor fun.
And that’s a win for both sides of the screen.