Wednesday, May 27, 2015

So you want to convert: OSR to Pathfinder Self-Publishing

Cover Image of the Lost Lands: Sword of Air by Artem Shukayev

I tend to keep abreast of the developments of Frog God Games, even if I cannot afford many of their products.  As developers of dual-stat Swords & Wizardry and Pathfinder books, the designers distill the charm of old-school dungeon-delving into varying rulesets.  I wasn't surprised to find that their Sword of Air KickStarter delivered product versions for both games.

What did surprise me was the sight of an updated City-State of the Invincible Overlord KickStarter for the Pathfinder Role-Playing Game System.  There is also Castle of the Mad Archmage, an adventure heavily inspired by the Castle Greyhawk megadungeon developed for the Adventures Dark & Deep and Pathfinder rulesets.  The author, Joseph Bloch, was not familiar with the latter ruleset, so he hired someone to help convert it.

Although these are but three samples, each of them are popular pieces within the OSR fandom, so I definitely believe that this is part of an emerging trend.  It's understandable that some cross-pollination is going to occur between the two when they share so much in common in terms of aesthetic value (dungeon-delving, fantasy worlds, class and level system, etc) as well as having dedicated fanbases.  But the underlying design issues and play-styles are incredibly different, and "straight conversions" of games rarely work out well due to the nuances which don't always translate well.

As someone who's regularly played weekly games of both Labyrinth Lord and Pathfinder for months, I can shed some light for OSR folks with only a passing familiarity with D20 system games but wish to expand their products to a multi-edition platform.  This is more a series of pointers for newcomers than an exhaustive system breakdown (which I may cover in future posts should this one prove popular enough).

Ability scores being gradual in their modifiers.  Demi-human races being their own class.  Player skill over a skill system.  Magic items being priceless and random.  These are common tropes of the OSR, but they do not hold sway in Pathfinder.  First we'll talk about the most common OSR mechanics and how they're changed or done away with in Pathfinder.

Let Go of the Sacred Cows: Ability Scores

Ability Score Bell Curve from Hero Builder's Guidebook

Although both games utilize an initial 3-18 bell curve for starting characters, ability scores in Pathfinder matter more due to their granularity.  Whereas an OSR Fighter with a 13 Strength and middling Constitution can do well for a while, in Pathfinder this character concept isn't going to remain relevant for long unless they're focusing on ranged attacks or choosing a "finesse fighter" route.

Not only do Pathfinder scores add a +1 modifier for every multiple of 2, it is possible to further increase one's score with starting race, ability boosts every 4 levels, magic items, and certain spells such as Bull's Strength.  Since Dexterity modifiers add to armor class and the mental scores allow for spellcasters to prepare more spells per day, ability scores are now just as vital for character-building as one's class or race.

Long story short, an 18 is no longer the pinnacle of human(oid) achievement, so you might have to change up the numbers for NPCs a bit to ensure that their desired traits reflect how they act in play.  The Pathfinder SRD has a good sample list of ability score traits and corresponding monsters to sample values.

Let Go of the Sacred Cows: 'Player Skill'

Every character has skills in Pathfinder, traits which determine proficiency in certain actions and occupations.  From Acrobatics to Intimidate, they provide avenues which can help give a PC a much-needed push at a certain task.  The paladin's player may not be good at crafting speeches, but his +12 to Diplomacy guarantees a positive reaction from most people who don't wish him ill will.  A thief might find out about the Lost Era of Malgoniva by stumbling upon some ancient tomes, or he might gain similar or additional information with a high enough roll on Knowledge (History).  Used properly, the skill system adds another facet to the game by granting access to new opportunities for exploration.

If you're writing an adventure, impose a DC (or Dice Challenge) as a target number for actions of particular risk.  This is most common in exploration and non-combat sections.  The skill system curve is wonky and doesn't always scale evenly, but if it would pose a challenge to a professional in the field or a mighty task for a novice, it should probably have a DC.

Let Go of the Sacred Cows: Priceless Magic Items

From Expedition to Castle Ravenloft

Pathfinder not only allows for magic items (at least the less-powerful, non-artifact ones) to be bought, sold, and crafted by PCs, the constructs of the game mechanics make assumptions that adventuring parties will have access to equipment in line with their power level within reason for combat encounters.  At higher levels fighters should have magic swords and armor, rogues wondrous items which help them out with stealth and skills, et cetera.  The higher the level, the more likely it is that monsters and encounters will contain elements requiring spells and magic items to bypass, so an under-equipped party will suffer greatly.  There are still magic items which are unique and one of a kind (or so expensive that they aren't sold on the open market), but most can be conceivably bought or crafted with materials of a certain value.  The concept of an adventuring party convincing an eccentric antiquarian to part with a rare blade for gems and coin is something which can not only happen in a Pathfinder campaign, it is expected in many adventures and games.

Although not explicitly stated, the Big Six in particular of prime importance to high-level characters: magic weapon, magic armor and shield, ring of protection, cloak of resistance, amulet of natural armor, and ability score boosters provide much-needed boosts to PC abilities.

If you're writing an adventure, consult the wealth-by-level guidelines and ensure that the treasure awarded is not too sparse (yet not too generous) to allow for a reasonable degree of challenge.

This SRD page has a list of character wealth by level measured in gold pieces.

If the buying and replacing of magic items goes against the mood and theme of your sourcebook, consider checking out the rules for Scaling Magic Items in Pathfinder Unchained.  One Bling to Rule Them All: Scaling Magic Items and The Genius Guide to Relics of the Godlings both have their own rules for magical treasures which increase in power as the PCs level.  Granting the static bonuses of the Big Six items as inherent character traits will do well to increase the party's survival rate.

Your World's Foundations: Race, Class, and what it means to be a Halfling Cleric in a realm of Tiefling Magi and Elven Oracles

My Daughter's Tiefling by Uncannyknack of Deviantart

Many OSR games tend to be light on setting lore and detail, acting more as a toolbox with some well-recognized fantasy tropes for further development.  Even then there's a solid foundation of Basic D&D traditions permeating the most popular retroclones.  Clerics are forbidden from using edged weapons, only elves and humans can master the workings of spells (at least on the PC side of things), and magic items cannot be bought and sold for mere gold on the open market.

In general terms, OSR games are more restrictive than Pathfinder in terms of what races and classes can do.  Although there are hints of this in more modern editions, they tend to be more stereotypes than hard-fixed facets.  With some very rare exceptions, there are no banned classes for races for PC use.  Even certain cultural taboos and traditions will not be mechanical restrictions, instead pitting such examples as rebels and exiles with a backstory for why they bucked their peoples' way of life.  Race and class are separate in Pathfinder, and while some excel more at certain professions (halflings make better stealth-focused characters than melee ones), race is more of an add-on than a core component of how your PC plays.

Let's take dwarves, for example.  In OSR, they're a class of their own focused on martial expertise  with no magical abilities.  Perhaps their lack of magic is due to an inherited trait (which might explain their saving throw bonus vs. spells).  Perhaps the few mages they have are so rare they're hidden from the general public due to their valued talents.  Either way, a magic-using dwarf isn't possible without some GM intervention and the creation/remodeling of an existing class.

In Pathfinder, a dwarven cleric or wizard is not just possible, they can actually excel at the role.  Virtually every sapient civilization has a patron deity or pantheon, and for a race to be exceedingly rare and poor at a given class is more represented with ability score penalties than outright bans.  One of Pathfinder's primary strengths is the versatility of character options, and restrictions are exceptions to the rule which require explanation for why this is so in your world.  The classes of later Paizo releases such as Alchemist, Magus, and Summoner are just as as popular as the iconic core options.  Not just official material, but a select assortment of third-party books are popular choices such as Dreamscarred Press' psionic options.  In short, adventuring parties who want to play in your sandbox are going to be a more diverse bunch than what you're ordinarily familiar with at OSR tables.

Option One, Preserve the Old Ways: I do not recommend this option for several reasons.  Now that any race can select virtually any class, humans gain more skill points and a bonus feat in exchange for the loss of their unique status as "jack-of-all-trades."  If you ban dwarves and halflings from utilizing magic and restrict them to a scant few classes, everyone's going to be picking human and elf PCs.  Unless you have a bevy of new racially-exclusive classes to make up for this, you're going to get people asking why they should play a Halfling Rogue when they can be an Elven Wizard specializing in Illusion spells with some ranks in Disable Device and Stealth (or something along those lines).

The truth of the matter is that Pathfinder is very, very friendly to spellcasters, while being very restrictive on martial archetypes.  A few Paizo designers earned some notoriety for wanting to limit Fighters and Monks to real-world physics in a game where PC wizards can potentially create their own demi-planes or gain 24-hour flight among many, many other things.

Option Two, Allow Concessions: Maybe you have an intriguing setting reason for why dwarves cannot manifest magic, or why the gods only chose humans to manifest their will in the world.  If you're a good enough writer, and can give some unique toys for the restricted races to play around with to make up for it, it's possible that it will be overlooked in favor of a cool campaign.  But this actually takes more work and thought on your part: given that the majority of Pathfinder classes grant some form of spellcasting, you might want to apply a lighter touch.  Perhaps dwarves cannot manifest the bloodline powers of sorcery or comprehend the arcane runes of wizard's spellbooks, but maybe they're exemplary alchemists and pray to the spirits of the earth for divine aid.  Halflings might be a forsaken, godless people, but they come from an esteemed line of illusionists and elemental manipulators.

If you restrict a few classes, do the ones in line with their weaknesses (wizardry to orcs, sorcery for dwarves, etc), and give them a few exclusive feats for the classes they excel at to make them skilled in their preferred professions.  Dwarves might be able to gain feats which allow them to craft alchemical items more cheaply; maybe they can infuse adamantine plating into weapons after they're created to allow for equipment customization.  People react more positively to what appears to be a "gift exchange" rather than a blanket ban.

Option Three, Embrace Diversity: Tolkien was an exemplary writer and world-builder, but dwarves, elves, hobbits, and men are not the end-all be all of fantasy.  Unless your OSR book has detailed setting lore and a unified plan for the races of the world, it probably has enough forlorn corners and distant lands to host an array of catfolk, tieflings, and dragon-blooded to accommodate such PCs.  It might be tempting to have the more 'exotic' races be treated with fear and contempt in order to preserve a humanocentric feel, but keep in mind that familiarity breeds contempt.  A catfolk who comes into a realm with a history of wars with goblins might generate worried glances, but they might be left alone if a PC in good standing with the community speaks on their behalf or have a benevolent service.  There is fear of the unknown, but locals will not have generations of superstitious fables and veterans displaying battle scars to draw from, unlike the goblins.  If your setting is a trade hub, magical nexus point, or center of learning, it may be more readily able to accept the unknown (at least until said unknown factors prove a demonstrable danger).

Secondly, there is a lot of modern fantasy novels, televisions, and video games which posit all kinds of sapient races.  Snake-like nagas, adorable moogle-like animals, and even elusive faeries will not be regarded as so exotic to modern gamers that they can't connect with your setting.

Advice: Pathfinder Players Love Crunch

Pathfinder RPG Promotional Material

Every so often you might see some folk on the Paizo message boards worrying about their favored RPG getting too bloated, or considering a return to core-only games, but the truth of the matter is that the huge array of supplements has not worn down the fanbase's love for the game.  One of the best-selling products on Drive-Thru RPG, the Midgard Campaign Setting, is a truly beautiful and unique world, but a fair portion of its setting pitch waxes praise on new cleric domains, equipment, background options, etc.  The supplements for Ponyfinder, another popular setting, frequently achieve hottest-selling status for a few weeks on OneBookShelf when they're published.  Ultimate Psionics, Book of Monster Templates, In the Company of Dragons, and other option-based sourcebooks compete with adventure and setting products for best-sellers.

There are a few good sourcebooks which provide mostly familiar material, and those can sell well if they help cut down on GM prep time, but a particular thrill of getting a new Pathfinder book is finding material that one can apply to their own home games.  One could cut up individual adventure seeds and dungeon levels and achieve the same effect, but a dungeon which has a new set of themed spells, a setting with a flavorful race, or new archetypes for a class ensure that the book finds use beyond that one world.  For example, Midgard has an archetype to make clerics truly polytheist, able to switch around patron deities on a weekly basis; this is an archetype very common in literature and real-world cultures, and is otherwise quite rare in D&D settings.

If your OSR sourcebook has an unorthodox idea, such as a secret society of cultists who call upon a deity hidden deep within the Plane of Shadows, grant them an array of darkness-themed spells.  Do merchants in your setting sell rare hallucinogens which help bolster the spells of mages?  Turn them into new consumable magic items!  It helps make your own fictional world more unique and provides new material; what's not to love?

Advice: Outsourcing Work and Reviews

If you're new to Pathfinder, you have two choices: continually play the RPG until you can grasp the rules system intuitively, or outsource your work to a writer experienced with the system.  Coming into a new RPG and expecting it to play just like your familiar favorite is going to blind you to a lot of variables.  The initial playtesters for 3rd Edition committed this folly by playing the game like 2nd Edition, missing entire sections of spells and feats which fundamentally changed how classes were played.

Paizo has a Freelancer Open Call thread for third party publishers.  The Pathfinder subreddit has a lot of members who can help answer questions about the game.  Although they're not as fond of 3rd Edition's spiritual sequel, the folks at Min-Max Boards have years' worth of experience of actual play and rules analysis of D20 D&D; they can help judge if your product's too out of whack in the rules department.  GiantITP has a vibrant D20 community as well.  The designers at Dreamscarred Press are the gold standard for quality design, so you might consider approaching them for help or look to their material and design notes for inspiration.

Once you polish your work and have it ready to be sold, you're going to need exposure.  Unlike the OSR's thousand-something catalog on OneBookShelf, third-party Pathfinder is home to four-thousand and counting, about a third of them shovelware worth two dollars or less and only a few pages long.  Products promising new spells and feats are a dime a dozen, so unless you have an inbuilt fanbase, eye-catching artwork, or a nifty sales pitch and willingness to advertise it everywhere, you're going to get lost in a sea of sourcebooks.

However, there is hope.  Actual settings for Pathfinder are few and far between, so this is a relatively untapped market.  Endzeitgeist is the most renowned Pathfinder reviewer out there, and a review from him can help give your work some much-needed exposure.  However, there's no guarantee of a good review should he accept your submission letter, and the same applies to Paizo reviews as well.  I understand that some websites scratch out negative reviews, or that in some circles reviewers feel obligated to leave a positive score if they receive a complimentary copy, but this horse-trading is far from universal in Pathfinder.  Hopefully you have enough pride in your work for it to stand on its own merits.  By all means favor constructive criticism, but don't be shocked if people hand out one and two stars reviews due to dissatisfaction with your work.

Concluding Thoughts

I hope that this post proves useful to self-publishers wishing to follow in the footsteps of Frog God Games and their ilk in designing multi-system gaming material.  In the future I might cover more specific areas of system difference, or even compare and contrast OSR and Pathfinder versions of multi-system sourcebooks should I ever save up the money for them.  To those community designers wishing to expand their love of the game to outside fandoms, I wish you the best in your efforts!