I mentioned in my previous blog that I’m part of a group playing through Doomsday Dawn, the 7-part playtest adventure to test very specific parts of the proposed 2nd Edition Pathfinder rules. We went into this knowing that the playtest adventure isn’t like other adventures—although we’ve been pleasantly surprised by the plots thread running through it. One thing we’ve noticed about the game, though, is that it feels pretty punitive overall. That's particularly obvious in spells.

Now, the game isn’t overtly punitive by design: there are several spell effects, for example, that have a minor effect even if your opponent succeeds at a required saving throw. That can make you feel like you’ve gained some ground, even though you’ve failed (in this regard, your opponent succeeding is a failure for you). So, conceptually, an opponent’s success isn’t something that should be demoralizing. But I’ve seen that, in play, it sometimes is.

I’ll take two examples: my friend’s bard from Part 4 and my other friend’s sorcerer from Part 5.

Phantasmal Killer That’s Only A Tiny Bit Scary. Our bard relied heavily on the spell phantasmal killer, which is always a bit of an oddball spell. In 1st edition Pathfinder, it requires two failed saving throws to have its strongest effect. In 2nd edition, it has a possible “scare you to death” effect, but only if your opponent critically fails the saving throw against the spell. The spell has gone from a “better save on one of these, or you’ll die!” to “Here is some damage…oh, and it’s super unlikely but technically possible that you’ll die.” During play, the bard cast phantasmal killer on an opponent. I happened to be running Part 4. He told me his target and his DC, I rolled the die, and said, “It succeeds, but something happens anyway, right? I’m frightened, or something?” My friend pointed out that I’d rolled a 6. But a 6 succeeded. The foe had a minor penalty for less than 1 round, but that was it. The player felt that a 6 should reflect failure for the enemy (and success for him), and was demoralized by the result. When it happened again—with a roll of an 8 or something else only slightly better—he was ready to give up on phantasmal killer as “the spell that only ever inflicts frightened 1.” It certainly didn’t feel heroic or even very useful for one of his most powerful spells.

Not at All Disintegrated. My friend’s sorcerer knows that disintegrate is a powerful spell with two limiters: first, you have to hit your opponent with a ray, and then they have to fail a Fortitude saving throw for optimum effect. Compare this to something like, say fireball, which doesn’t require an attack roll, or scorching ray, which requires an attack roll but doesn’t allow a saving throw. Disintegrate is much more powerful that either of these, because it’s got two potential failure points built into it. (In this regard, it’s a bit like phantasmal killer, a common thread in my two examples). We were facing several demons: a couple of big ones and a couple of smaller ones. We knew the smaller ones weren’t as tough as the big ones, but they were causing us some problems and we wanted them gone. My friend spent her turn to make a move her sorcerer was built around: to cast true strike and then disintegrate, to better assure her spell would hit. With rolls of 3 and 18, she was glad for the true strike, because she hit. Then the demon made its Fortitude save, rolling a 7 and failing—oh, wait, except for the +1 demons get against magic. That made it a success. So the damage was reduced to a level that felt quite paltry. My friend was quite demoralized: she’d used her best spell combo against the weakest foe on the map, and dealt a distressingly low amount of damage. She felt the same way my other friend had the previous session: that the enemy’s success on such a low roll (and a minor enemy at that) meant something was wrong with the system.

In both cases, the characters were built in the best possible way to ensure success with their spells. And neither would have batted an eye against a saving throw roll of 18 or 19, or maybe even a 12 or 13. But when you focused your best build and effects on something that succeeds less than half the time, it’s very disheartening. I saw it happen twice in two weeks.

I know that the design team here is taking a look at the underlying math, and they’ll be revising that so that success feels a little more likely when you’re particularly dedicated to an aspect of the game—whether that’s spells, or skills, or what have you. Our games have shown me that’s something the final rules set really needs.