June 5, 2014

Pathfinder Types and Select Subtypes

Types and subtypes are some of the most annoying system hidden inside D&D 3.x or Pathfinder.  Basically all magic attacks interact with the type/subtype system.  Spellcasters, especially arcane casters, need to know the type and subtype of just about every monster they meet.  And then they need to know what that means.  

Arcane casters tend to take Knowledge in Arcana, Dungeoneering, Nature, Planes, and Religion so that they can identify a creature as being one of the types covered by those skills.  This allows them to avoid wasting spells.  It's hardly obvious that a giant scorpion can not be sacred off with Cause Fear, for instance.

So I've made a DM tool - a Pathfinder types and subtypes cheat sheet - to speed up that first round of combat.  It doubles as a player tool as well.  The rules that govern this tool's use are as follows:

You can use this skill to identify monsters and their special powers or vulnerabilities. In general, the DC of such a check equals 10 + the monster's CR. For common monsters, such as goblins, the DC of this check equals 5 + the monster's CR. For particularly rare monsters, such as the tarrasque, the DC of this check equals 15 + the monster's CR, or more. A successful check allows you to remember a bit of useful information about that monster. For every 5 points by which your check result exceeds the DC, you recall another piece of useful information. Many of the Knowledge skills have specific uses as noted on Table: Knowledge Skill DCs. (source: http://paizo.com/prd/skills/knowledge.html )

Here's how you use it.  When you describe the encounter, give a good description of the monster.  If the PCs haven't encountered it before (typical for a fantasy RPG), call for a knowledge check as above (or allow taking 10 by just asking "Do you have at least [CR] in Knowledge [Type]?").  If they succeed, tell them the creature's Type and Subtype and let them look it up on the chart.

The Tool: A Back-and-Front Table of Type/Subtype Information

Pathfinder Types and Select Subtypes Table
(feel free to use with or without attribution, for profit or not)

Give this table to the players of spellcasters with Knowledge skills.  Let them read and reference it whenever they want.  Since type and subtype traits were developed for simulationist purposes, it makes sense that, for example, a wizard trained in Arcana would know that all Dragons are immune to sleep spells because of some quirk of their dragon mystic resonance.  A particularly good check result (if you're rolling) might give the players some more information, like what the creature's spell resistance is, or its other defenses.

Also, don't forget to telegraph the monster's really scary awesome attacks!  Do this in your basic description (before the monster knowledge check), because the point of F20 combat encounters is to make the players believe their characters are in far more peril than they actually are.  The more you scare them, the more tense the encounter is, even if their chances of winning are around 98%.

When you're giving out extra information for the monster knowledge check, always give information to help the PCs win faster, not stats about the monster's attacks -- you want those to be scary.  If I tell you a hellhound is a huge wolf from hell that breathes fire, that's scary!  But if I tell you it does just 2d6 damage, that you can save for half, that it's only a 10' cone, and that it can only do it every 2d4 rounds, it's not scary.  Instead, give away the monster's weaknesses with a good Knowledge skill or roll.  These allow the players to feel like they've uncovered a valuable secret, without making the encounter feel as un-deadly as it really is.  And if they exploit that secret to win the encounter faster, you've not only saved table time, you've done so while:

  1. Using the rules 
  2. Adding tactical complexity
  3. Making the players feel smart
  4. Rewarding good skills as opposed to minmaxed combat stats
  5. Taking no action that detracts from the sensation of danger in the encounter

Exaggerate the monster's offense.  
If you're rewarding good Knowledge, instead reveal its weaknesses.  


"This creature resembles a thin, lanky wolf with reddish-brown fur, white claws, and burning, fiery red eyes.  As it raises its head to growl at you, sulfrous smoke shoots from its nostrils, and when it opens its fanged maw to bark, red-hot flames shoot out with the otherworldly sound...  Do you have Knowledge: Planes trained and +3 or higher?"  

"Yeah, +9"  

"Then you know that this is a wolf spawned in the pits of hell.  It clawed its way into our world, perhaps with the aid of an Asmodean cult or a powerful devil.  This is a hell-wolf bent on killing, and it can barbecue entire parties because it can breathe fire.  It's a Lawful Evil Extraplanar Fire Outsider. And since you've got +9, you also know it is vulnerable to cold."

(A hellhound, by the way, is actually less dangerous than an orc, which seems rather silly to me.  You'll see more on Pathfinder monster design from me later!)

The Value of Code

In my years playing 3rd edition and Pathfinder, I've played five casters long-term:  A cleric, druid, bard, blaster type wizard, and witch each in long, multi-year campaigns (in addition to a fighter, paladin, rogue, and monk in long campaigns).  I've also run at least as much as I've played in d20.  I've learned that playing a spellcaster takes some preparation and planning in downtime, otherwise you wind up holding up the action during game time.

DMs can help the players of casters avoid slowing down the game by interfacing with them efficiently, using type and subtype as quick code for a whole host of monster immunities.  Describing an Wraith's immunities is a lot harder, takes more time, and requires more work for the DM than just saying "incorporeal undead."

The Value of Distributed Processing

The rules for the wraith's type and subtype comprise as many words of text as this blog post.  If the DM tries to handle all of these rules in the background, it's going to be a lot of work.  Instead, the DM can share (distribute) those rules with a player to process.  Now when the monk tries to trip the wraith, the wizard's player can step in and remind the monk that it won't work.  The DM doesn't have to A) remember the exact rule because the wizard player has it right there or B) referee the monk's action because the wizard player can interject.

Think of the amount of page flipping, SRD clicking, and rules arguing time that saves!