Pathfinder Actual Play: Skull and Shackles

The Pathfinder game I play in with +Jeromy French+kung fu hillbilly , +Matt Sutton , +Joshua Taylor , and +James Stanton is working through Skull and Shackles. We had started playing using the Organized Play rules, but did not find them to our collective liking. So we made the campaign switch, and now are playing characters of the not-nice variety.

This is thus my second Pathfinder game, and I still consider myself a novice. Jeromy has been very kind to help me by suggesting the right character advancement pathways, since his knowledge and experience with Feats and the various class enhancements is better than mine.

My current character is a 4th level half-elf Rogue regrettably named Pelagiyel by cruel parents. He goes by Pel. I conceived him as a pirate from the start, where his role would be to sneak into towns, see what plunder is available or being loaded on to ships, possibly get on board said ships, and help take them down from the inside. Chaotic Neutral, baby. Thus, his key skills are Appraise, Stealth, Sailor, maybe some Climb and Swim, and the ever-popular Perception. When I got into this, I had no idea how skill-heavy Rogues are . . . something I’ll revisit in my Pathfinder read-through on Chapter 3: Classes. (Prelude, Chapter 1, and Chapter 2 already published)

Previously, we’d been through what looks like the first subset of the adventure, having been press-ganged aboard a pirate ship with a notably nasty set of officers. The Captain was high-level but disinterested in the likes of us, leaving his stooges to deal with his crew. Harshly.

We’d previously done some faction-building, weathered a storm, fought off some monsters, and captured another ship. We were sent aboard that one, got lost in a storm, and had to stop at an island to replenish water supplies. Whereupon we returned, carried off a pretty slick mutiny with the aid of our resident alchemist and some sleeping potions, killed those opposed to our faction and preserved the rest. That glosses over a lot, but gets us caught up.

We were then severely understrength and undercrewed – even more than usual – but we managed to locate and dock at a local pirate haven, and set out to refit the ship into something a bit less obviously stolen. I think that’s about where we started off last night.

The adventure opened with what seemed to be a shopping trip, where we were spending some of our communal loot to get some cool/magical items appraised and purchased. Pel didn’t score anything worthwhile – he’s got masterwork chain shirt, rapier, composite shortbow, plus a few non-masterwork daggers for chucking, so he’s pretty well kitted up for now. He did make good use of 10 ranks in Appraise to get the value of some gems we’d found. Nothing much – a few hundred gold worth – but a spinel and some traded items were enough to secure +Matt Sutton ‘s PC (Malgrim, our notional captain: we voted and he was the most intmidating as a Hobgoblin Corsair/Summoner; with 10 ranks in Sailor, I became the bosun) some quality purchased loot – a magical weapon, if I recall.

After that, we were naturally attacked by a swarm of giant wasps that flew in from the wilderness. Wandering Monster indeed. We made short work of them, and Pel did his usual two-arrows-per-turn thing thanks to Rapid Shot. The dice were fairly evenhanded this game, and I managed to vacillate between being quite useless and quite effective this time, as opposed to a ludicously-unlikely string of the die-roller program having me roll a 2 on 1d20. So, managed to get and confirm a critical, and otherwise nail the wasps pretty hard. I needs to get me a magical bow. I was able to accomplish something pretty much every round, and the uniform d20 distribution was more uniform that day.

After that, we parlay’d (parlaid? parlayed?) with a newly arriving pirate guy, who recognized our ship and with a wink welcomed us, seemingly, into the world of dashing villainous scum. Woo hoo! We then decided to go plunder a town, to get into practice.

Pel used some alchemical awesomeness to swim to shore, checked out the place, and found out that there was a large amount of alcohol to be had, and maybe some grain. There were maybe five elders who might pose any sort of threat, and the rest were noncombatants.

We started to lay an elaborate plan to rush in and wipe them out. Given the nature of the opposition, I had flashbacks to Mystery Men, seeing us as the Red Eyes, pillaging an old-folks home for dentures and artificial limbs.

Malgrim suggested that rather than go that route, we get close to shore, go up and Intimidate the hell out of them, getting what we want by threat of force rather than something much like boxing with a six-year-old. 

We liked that plan better, and so we executed it, and then Malgrim crit-failed his Intimidate roll (see! the dice hates us!) and the elderly spear carriers mocked us. Two catapult shots later (one on target, the other landing perilously close to Malgrim; our crew needs more practice) we had the booze, the grain, and limped out to sea with the tattered remains of our dignity.

We thought the next-best plan would be to find another village, do some basic capitalism and try the buy-and-sell route, while also recruiting, we hope, the local Dwarven smith to join our crew. Meanwhile Pel would use our “trading” excursions to scope out likely plunder, both on land and at sea.

That was basically the session.

So, game stuff and random observations.

I continue to be frustrated with the flat distribution of the 1d20, which especially for combat can make for a very aggravating day. The Armor Class of your foe, the roll you must beat to hit, seems to range from about 10-20, with 15 being a fairly common number. This means that you’re going to be looking at needing some serious skill ranks before you have a decent chance to hit. Pel has a Ranged attack modifier of +6, which is usually at -2 for Rapid Shot, but +1 since one of our bards is usually inspiring us to be more badass than usual. So at 1d20+5, twice, I can expect to hit with at least one shot 75% of the time, and both 25% of the time . . . but given a low number of rolls, the streakiness of the dice can be either awesome or render you ineffective.

I have grown used to the tactical flexibility of GURPS. I like the ability to aim for the head, or limbs, or whatnot. But that’s not how Pathfinder works, so that’s fine. WEG d6 Star Wars was “I shoot at the stormtrooper, I hit” as well, and it was still fun.

My solution to this issue works better for my class (Rogue) in non-combat areas, which is to build up so many ranks in the skills I care about that the dice can be my enemy and I still succeed. Thus, 14 ranks in Stealth and Perception, 11 in Disable Device, and 10 in Appraise and Sailor. The Stealth/Perception combo had a few rolls of 30+. Rogues are brutal with this. My INT isn’t that high at 14, but the +2 modifier I get means I get 10 skill ranks per level, plus another if I’m getting a rank within my Favored Class. I think I traded my other favored class (as a half-elf) for Rope Master or something like that. Still, as long as I play nicely within Rogue, I pick up 11 ranks per level. Yowzers.

Pathfinder has a pretty condensed skill list, maybe two dozen or so (a few more, since there are lots of Professional and Knowledge skills that do not overlap). This means with the right stats and a good selection of “class-skills,” it’s pretty easy to be good at things, and to cover the required adventuring specialties. I have to wonder if these can be turned into GURPS Wildcard skills pretty easily, for those who really don’t want to muck with the extensive skill list in GURPS. Hrm. Pyramid article or blog post?

Technically, the Skulls and Shackles Adventure Path is the second PF-style game I’m playing in. The other is Jade Regent, but using GURPS Dungeon Fantasy. My impression of the Adventure Path thus far is that they tend to be a bit railroady. That being said, one of the reasons that GURPS pre-written adventures tend not to sell well is that in order to have an actual volume of material that can be used all at once, they have to be railroady. Still, my take-away (and this has been echoed by others) is that you get into a situation or a plot nexus, and find “there are eight things you can do. Five are useless or counterproductive, two circle around back to this same place, but if you pick that one, please turn to p. 134 and the plot can continue.”

Along this line, but in a nice way, though, I must say that Golarion seems to rock on toast. Lots of places to visit, a variety of cultures and races and adventuring prospects. It would make for a great sandbox in any game system. I see enough people converting Golarion to GURPS Dungeon Fantasy that there’s a fair amount of agreement here. A Dungeon Fantasy cross-licence with Paizo is unlikely for what I presume are a whole host of reasons, but it would make a great cross-platform item to bring a fragmented hobby closer together.

What else? Oh . . . whatever you may like or dislike about Class-Level systems, I will say that at least in my limited experience with the skill-heavy Rogue, leveling up simply rocks. There is a Tyrranosaur-sized difference between a Level N and a Level N+1 rogue. I’m not sure if the spell-based or feat-based classes feel the same way – perhaps the more experienced PF grognards can tell me.

Next weekend, the same GM will be playing his newly started and Firefly-inspired GURPS Space campaign, hopefully joined by both me and my wife. Tomorrow is GURPS Jade Regent. We’ll see in two weeks if our plan to rule the seas in Pathfinder Skulls and Shackles is successful or not . . .

7 thoughts on “Pathfinder Actual Play: Skull and Shackles

  1. I enjoyed the writeup. I've never played Pathfinder or its ilk, so it's interesting to see it depicted by someone used to GURPS.

    Is there any limit on how much skill rank you can put into a skill per level? Sounds like you can max out to top levels in your favored skills very easily – I gather advancement is therefore mostly about things other than skills?

    GURPS, due to an emphasis on customizability that has gotten stronger in 4e, lacks default settings for most of its genres that are generic the same way that most D&D derived worlds or Traveller's original Imperium was. This tends to wipe out any possibility of writing adventure support, as everyone's campaigns are different.

    DF is a bit of exception, but its status as deliberate emulation of a setting-free "lowest common denominator" of D&D basic adventure encourages conversion rather than creating a need for adventures.

    1. As was pointed out to me on another comment board, you're limited to "ranks" in the skill equal to your current hit dice (level). So my 14 ranks in Perception and Stealth shouldl probably be chopped down a bit. I do get +3 b/c it's a "class skill," and another +2 or +3 for my attribute bonuses. I think I pick up a few other bonuses for class somewhere . . . but I really can't put more than 4 ranks in them by RAW. So +7 to +10 in selected skills is all you should be able to get.

      My character gets 11 ranks per level, and even with as many skills as I can take (22), there are some I don't want. So I could easily have four ranks in 11 skills, plus the stat and class bonuses, for +8 to +10 even if I don'tget any special boosts for other reasons.

  2. Aha! The level limit makes more sense given the overall logic of a level-based system, I think – otherwise it would seem difficult for the DM to balance skill-based challenges.

  3. Yeah, Doug got it straightened out about Skill ranks. His numbers were looking screwy to me. I am especially sensitive to this sort of thing since I played a Rogue all the way through Second Darkness (a previous Paizo Adventure Path).

    I am also currently playing in Skull and Shackles and am Chaotic Neutral as well. I'm a Cleric though. Desna, Domaons of Travel and Freedom. Those are the sort of things that are important about Clerics since our Skill list (and pts) suck.

    Pathfinder cleaned up the skill list some compared to 3.5 by doing things like compressing Move Silently and Hide into Stealth and multple sensory Skills in Perception.

    Leveling up is actually fairly simple (and that appears to be the way the average player likes it). that means 1 Rank into every Skill you really depend on with possible branching out to get at least 1 Rank in every Class skill after you take care of your priorities.

    It's a little harder to setr priorities for Skull and Shackles as it isn't (at least so far) a conventional dungeon crawler. For such a dungeoncrawler Perception is the #1 Skill. It's the Rogue's job to find the traps. Disbale Device comes next of course.

    Now that I do the math my group has gotten by without a Rogue so far. 2 Fighters, my Cleric, a Storm-oriented druid (expansion book Archetype) a Sorceror and a sort of Noble Class from non-Paizo material.

    We're probably two sessions behind you. Scheduled to wrap up the first book on Satuirday.

    S&S probably is more railroady than the usual AP with it's very cpnstraining day/night activity choices during the faction-building phase. Other APs have been much more under the control of the PC group.

    If you have technical questions I might rate as something like a Pathfinder expert. I've been doig this since their Beta and ahve gone through 5 or 6 APs (though not alwasy all the way through).

    1. Hey, Fred: Welcome! Glad you're reading.

      I may take you up on the offer, and I would be very interested to see your comments and thoughts on my read-throughs. As I note, I'm new at this, and so when I say "Hey, I think Monks may well be a front-line combat class, maybe an A-/B+ fighter," you might say "You know, it does seem that way, but in fact, they get hammered, because their damage just ain't that good, and their AC is only boosted by like five magic items in the whole world."

      Again, thanks for taking the time to comment.

    2. Im interested in the GURPS Golarian license issues if you want to discuss that since was mentioned on the SJGames board the comments section of the post is the place for it . . . oh, and I now know you have a blog, neat!

    3. I've been writing for the last half-hour or hour on this topic, and it'll be a separate blog entry in a few days. I want to stare at it for a bit to make sure I've done it the right way.

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