When is hard too hard? and what should be done about it?

How hard can it be?

Not, surprisingly, a rhetorical question.

Ever since the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game was launched, there seems to have been an ongoing discussion about the difficulty of the game.

The first Adventure Path, Rise of the Runelords, was fairly generic fantasy in theme and – in the view of many – too easy. As the players scaled up through the six adventures, not all of the monsters they had to face scaled with them: defeating a bandit who has a combat check of 8 might be risky when you’re rolling D10 + D6 + 2, but once you’re rolling 2D10 + 6, the jeopardy has entirely gone.

The shark starts out at +1, and just keeps getting stronger
The shark starts out at +1, and just keeps getting stronger

Difficult was what the people asked for, and difficult was what the people got. The second AP, Skull & Shackles, sent players on a Pirate-themed set of adventures, and it was immediately noticeable how things scaled – instead of simply having a generic couple of henchman who cropped up all over the place and were quickly outpaced, the players were faced with cards like the Hammerhead shark, who could not be evaded, and whose combat check scaled with the adventure deck number.

Changes like that were probably needed – other things, like the increased focus on barriers, and the need to ensure that your characters could deal with a wider selection of checks that simply their prime combat stat also added to the decision-making required by players, and the overall longevity of the game.

This growth in difficulty wasn’t universally well received. On top of the boosting of the standard level of bane difficulty, there were also an ever-growing band of locations with nasty effects, and some truly hideous henchman / villain / scenario powers, that at times it just felt like a perfect storm of hideousness, devised solely to see just how hard a scenario could be made, without reference to theme (Best Served Cold – I’m looking at you).

Moving on to the Third AP, Wrath of the Righteous, it looked to those cracking open their base set as if the difficulty had been taken up another sizeable notch. The introductory adventure blighted players with hideous swarm-summoning barriers, combat-13 monsters that were immune to spells, and a Tree that dealt you 2 damage (2 lots of 1 damage in fact, to stop you fending it off with armour) even if you did manage to survive the combat 13.

Adventure 1, by contrast, was remarkably easy- so much so, in fact, that there were many suggestions – including from official sources – that the level B adventure was best handled by a group that had successfully completed Adventure 1 already.

Adventure 2 brought armies: Banes that had to be defeated by each character, with a fixed list of 6 different checks to defeat them, and no repetition of checks allowed – not too tricky with small groups, but thoroughly hideous for parties of 6. Add to this a scenario where the locations had to be explored in a linear sequence, and cards from the closed location were shuffled into the next rather than banished, and the 6-player experience reached a point not too dissimilar to repeatedly head-butting a wall. Having previously completed 6 complete run-throughs of an Adventure Path / Season, our group were forced to split the party for only the second time ever, in order to get through this one.

After adventure 2, the difficulty seemed to calm down, and 3 and 4 were at a less crushing level. By adventure 4 though, the question of difficulty was being raised once more, and the “too easy” crowd had one character firmly in their sights.

Alain

Alain Alain is a Cavalier who, as we were told many months back, comes to the PACG with “a shocking lack of tragedy in hid backstory.” A charismatic melee fighter always accompanied by his trusty horse Donahan, and capable of crushing most monsters from horseback.

Alain starts with a strength dice of D10 and +2 for melee, and the chances are that you’ll be putting the first few skill feats into his strength too. At the end of adventure 1, you get to choose a Mythic Path for Alain, and in all probability, that will mean a further boost to Alain’s strength checks – probably a static +N (where N is the current adventure deck number) with the option to toss in the occasional D20.

Wrath of the Righteous has introduced a new-subtype of cards, those with the mount trait, and Alain is the prime exponent of the mount: if you have a Lance (or one of its upgraded cousins), then you can reveal a mount on the first exploration (*combat?) of the turn to add an additional dice. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that you want Alain equipped with as many lance-style weapons as possible.

You get the idea...
You get the idea…

By the start of Adventure 4 then, chances are that with even the most basic weapon in hand, Alain starts his combat check at +10, and with a lance and a horse, that’s more likely to be +12, rolling 3 dice. There is no denying that this is powerful – after all, who wouldn’t want a floor of 12 on their combat checks?

Alain has generated a lot of discussion on the message-boards concerning his power level, not solely based on his combat, but also on some of his exploration powers, particularly those which come with his role card.

If you take Alain’s “Lancer” role, you gain the option to recharge a card from your hand to search your deck or discard pile for a “mount” card. This has various possible uses: for one thing, you can use a mount to take an exploration, then recharge a card to fetch it back. Furthermore, if you have to take damage, any time that you discard a mount for that damage, you can “heal” it back by recharging a card to retrieve the mount. There have been a lot of comments which suggest that this feat is over-powered, and these criticisms broadly fall into 2 groups – the idea that the Blessings deck (the game’s timer mechanism) is rendered obsolete, and the idea that this “healing” ability makes damage irrelevant.

Explore, Explore and Explore Again

Warhorse Those who believe that Alain renders the Blessings deck irrelevant present a fairly simple scenario which allows Alain to clear a single location on his turn: the idea is that you explore once for free, then discard a mount to go again (ideally a warhorse, which allows you to treat combats that turn as the first of the turn). You then pull the mount back to hand by recharging a card, and repeat infinitely.

As simple as this may seem, there are, of course, a number of problems to this. First of all, you need cards to recharge for this ability. If you’ve put 2 feats into his hand size (not massively unlikely, but certainly not a given), Alain can start his turn with 6 cards (assuming he hasn’t had to use any to fight off hordes of demons of bless his companions during other characters’ turns). One of these needs to be a weapon. Given the amount of damage in Wrath, one probably needs to be an armour. 2 need to be mounts (Donahan + an exploring ally). That’s 2 cards in hand that you can use to fetch your horse back – 4 explorations.

Obviously, any cards you pick up during your turn are potential extra explorations, and the “Alain is too powerful” camp argue that Alain can acquire anything and everything he comes across, but again, I’d want to look at that in more detail.

First up, what is Alain doing? As noted above, he’s very good at riding around on horses and hitting baddies with a big stick – chance are, then, that you want him in the locations that contain lots of baddies for him to hit, and not being a “Mancer” he isn’t going to be picking up any of those monsters.

Boon-wise, you might hope he’s on better ground: strength-based weapons are certainly ideal for him to acquire, and with D8 charisma +3 diplomacy, humanoid allies are a good bet too. On the flip-side though, he has d4 dexterity, d6 wisdom and d6 intelligence, so you can’t bank on him acquiring any dexterity-based weapons, any wisdom-based allies, or any spells.

All of this of course, is also based on the assumption that you don’t need to expend any blessings or other cards during your exploration – Alain’s dismal lack of dexterity and mediocre wisdom make him very vulnerable to barriers. In adventure 4, if you run into the servitor demon, you’ll need to pass a Constitution check to be able to use a weapon, and that’s likely to cost you a blessing at least. It also doesn’t factor in the issue already raised that there are still plenty of cards out there which can force characters to make additional checks / take damage during other characters turns.

Lastly, whilst Alain’s combat stats are clearly very good, he’s not indestructible and there are still a significant number of monsters whose check is above the average total he will be rolling, in which case you’ll either be expending blessings, using Donahan to get an extra boost (in which case you’ll need to use a card to fetch him back), or taking damage. All of these are actions which will reduce the number of cards available for extra explorations

There is another power that Lancer Alain can take, which allows him to move mid-turn and examine the top card of another location.  This means that if you are somehow pulling off the infinite explorations trick, for another power feat, you need no longer be bound by geography, and can go through all the locations, instead of just one. However, for the reasons noted above, I just don’t buy the idea of infinite explorations, so I’m not going to dwell on this in too much detail.

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

Other mounts are available
Other mounts are available

The other point about Alain negating a key element of the game, is the idea that he becomes essentially indestructible as he just discards horses for damage. As has been noted though, a lot of the ways of doing this are actually not allowed within the timing rules of the game – specifically, you can’t trigger an ability (such as “recharge a card to fetch a mount”) during a stage of an encounter that it doesn’t relate to. In other words, if you are dealt 3 damage during an encounter, and want to discard 3 mounts for that damage, then you needed to have 3 mounts in hand before the encounter.

This, as people have noted is probably one of the least understood / adhered-to elements of the game – the restrictions on when exactly players can or can’t play cards. Some of the time we may be fully aware that we are relaxing things to make life easier for ourselves, some people may be unaware, but either way, it doesn’t seem worthwhile spending too much time on a “game-breaking” situation which only arises if a player a.) isn’t following the rules accurately, or b.) is prepared to go around with a hand containing nothing but horses.

There's more than one way to generate extra explorations...
There’s more than one way to generate extra explorations…

Overall then, despite most of the concerns people have been citing, I don’t feel that Alain is overpowered. I would say that 3 or 4 explorations per turn seems about average for an Alain, certainly not too shabby, but something which feels much more like a necessary corrective to the general difficulty of Wrath, where allies and blessings need to be poured into checks rather than saved for exploring. In a six-player game, you have to generate extra explorations from somewhere (80 cards to potentially encounter, 30 turns to do it in), and Alain seems like one of a set of legitimate ways of doing this (other possibilities include Imrijka or Ranzak taking bonus explorations, characters like Damiel exploring aggressively then cycling healing potions and tot-flasks or, or even something as simple as a scrying ability which moves all the boons out of the way to get to the henchman quicker).

The point has been made that whilst a 6-character party has more cards to get through, it also has more resources with which to do so. This is a tricky one. Obviously, in terms of basic numbers, a 6-character party will have (roughly) twice as many cards in hand as a 3-character party (depending on choice of character, hand-size etc. However, they also have to wait twice as long between turns – i.e. twice as long before they can reset their hands, so playing a card out of turn can feel more of a cost. Big groups, I think, are better set up to smash a villain if they can spot him early and take some time to prepare, but in terms of resources for each individual turn/check, I’m not sure it’s all that simple.

A lot of it will be psychological. In a 6-character game, no character is likely to get more than 5 turns (unless something weird is going on), so yes, they can spend cards more aggressively than if they were in a 2-character group and were going to have 15 turns to survive. However, that doesn’t make it any less terrifying to be sat with a deck only as big as your hand-size half-way through the game.

Difficulty Curves

As I say then, I don’t see Alain as broken, but there is a wider issue to consider – if he (possibly along with 1 or 2 other characters) is more powerful than most, where exactly is the problem? Is he too powerful? Are others not powerful enough? Is the Adventure Path as a whole too difficult?

The difficulty of Wrath of the Righteous prompted enough discussion that Chad Brown, one of the designers actually posted an article discussing the difficulty curve of the game. It was noted, explicitly that Wrath is meant to start out as a mad panic with characters struggling to cling on, and then growing suddenly in power, particularly as they become “mythic” – he also adds the important note that even D20s roll 1s sometimes, so whilst characters in Wrath have great potential by the later stages, they can still fail spectacularly.

Wrath is contrasted with other APs where the levels of character-power and scenario difficulty scale at different rates relative to each other: in each setting, this was tied deliberately to the narrative events of the Path.

There are still difficulties with this: first of all, as I’ve noted in my most recent review, the theme of this AP can feel patchy at times- ok, it’s obvious that you’re fighting lots of demons, and that the Abyss is a big deal, but the details of what’s actually going on can easily get lost at times. I certainly don’t think there’s a clear sense of “Oh, I’m supposed to be really powerful at this point” or “yeah, this definitely feels like it’s deliberately difficult to reflect the horrors of the Abyss unleashed.” A large part of this may well be to do with the question of group size and scaling – as I mentioned in the overview above, there are scenarios in Adventure 2 which are brutal, virtually impossible with a group of 6, yet when we split the party (something we’ve only ever done twice with this game) and tackled it with 2 groups of three, it immediately became almost laughably easy – there’s no obvious thematic reason for group size to impact difficulty nearly as much as it does.

An Official Response

Since the blog article mentioned above, there has been no further comment on the difficult of Wrath generally, just as there has so far been no official ruling on Alain’s Lancer power, although the comment from Mike (Lead Designer) that “We think we’ve seen enough to make a change. More info soon” very strongly suggests that there is something in the pipeline.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record for regular readers of the blog, I just wanted to set out my general position on games, errata and difficulty.

  1. Don’t errata something unless you have to.
  2. If you’re playing a co-op game, and you think something makes the game too east, just don’t use it.

I think point 1 is fairly self-explanatory: people buy games with cards in, we want those cards to do what they say they do, not to have to remember (or worse still, explain to their friend who doesn’t own the game) that it doesn’t do the thing it claims it does. I understand that sometimes it needs to happen- and generally, I think PACG has done fairly well on limiting when this gets used, but I’m never a fan of it happening.

When someone complains about a game not being difficult enough in general, it often comes across as the person just showing off: “this game is too easy” feels a lot like “I am better at games than the rest of you.” I’ve encountered this with one of my other games, where every time a new game came out, the same guy would appear on the forums complaining that it was much too easy, causing significant frustration for the large numbers of people who had suffered the sometimes brutal reverses the game could throw at people.

When there is a specific aspect of the game in view then, for me, that’s more puzzling. It’s like the man who says to the doctor, “doctor I get these strange pains when I do this” and the doctor responds “well, don’t do it then.” If you think Alain is overpowered, don’t play him / don’t take the Lancer role / the feat to recharge the mounts. Not taking something which exists is an option you always have, taking something which doesn’t exist isn’t. The complaint is particularly baffling to me in the examples people have given of groups where the other non-Alain characters all play blessings to ensure that Alain can acquire cards he doesn’t have the skillset for (dexterity weapons, spells, etc). They do this, it seems, not because other characters want them – of course Enora’s going to give you brilliance and a blessing to pick up that amazing Arcane attack spell – but simply to allow him to recycle his horse once more. Then a few turns later, those very characters complain that Alain is hogging all the turns – a very simple solution would be for them to play those blessings on their own turn instead, to boost their check, or take an extra exploration for themself.

Am I the only one who finds the prospect of Alain riding a dog hilarious?
Am I the only one who finds the prospect of Alain riding a dog hilarious?

For all the hue and cry around Alain at the moment, it is tempting to see it all a storm in a tea-cup. As is often said on the blog: it’s your game, you decide how you play it. However, there are two issues with this.

Firstly, this game does have a growing level of Organised Play- if you’re playing in the Season of the Righteous, reporting your character, then you are not at liberty to house-rule. At some point, hopefully, there will be a Cavalier Class Deck, and at that point, only the “official” version of Alain will be allowed, whether that be the “over-powered” one currently running amuck, or the “nerfed” one sat floundering amid a horde of demons. Secondly, high-profile incidents like this can show us a lot about the health of the game overall, the direction it is taking, and generally how the players and the designers interact.

Are All Characters Created Equal?

PZO1125-Valeros
Now who’s Mythic?

I think it’s worth considering the question of whether all characters are created equal – As I’ve argued above, I think Alain’s power-level is entirely reasonable in Wrath of the Righteous. He’s a powerful fighter coming up against some powerful foes. What happens though, when you take him and drop him in Rise of the Runelords? Does Valeros slink off looking embarrassed and obsolete?

Well actually, at first glance at least, the answer would appear to be “no.” The earlier APs have neither mounts, nor lances, nor Mythic paths, so he becomes just another fighter, albeit one with a powerful, if incongruous, cohort. Donahan remains handy for avoiding those “at the start of your turn do X” locations, and the ability to stick him back on top of the deck could be handy later on, but by-and-large, I’d say there’s no real question of him being over-powered.

For later APs, the question is an open one- will Mummy’s Mask (or whatever lies beyond) have mounts? Will it have lances? Will it have scenarios that can be broken by cycling those mounts? At this stage, there are only a very small number of people might know the answers to these questions, and they aren’t telling us yet (nor would we expect them to).

Of course, there are potential game-breaking situations. If you take Alain to Rise of the Runelords, mix in the mounts and the lances from the Paladin Class deck (or the Lancer deck once we get one), does that break the game? – perhaps it does, but I think there’s a point at which we have to draw the line and be realistic about how much back-and-forward compatibility the designers can realistically be expected to include.

Are All Players Created Equal?

One last thing I’d want to draw attention to, was a comment in the Alain debate thread, made by one of the players who felt that Alain was a corrective to the difficulty of the game, rather than being the error.

“What annoys me personally is that as soon as there’re cries of “game too easy!” – here come the official FAQs. However, when people where complaining about cards and scenarios being absurdly difficult with 6 players – we were basically told “home-rule your game” (the AD1 before the base adventure thing) or with no response at all. It’s this perceived (admittedly, maybe only by me) double standard that irks me. [Longshot 11]

The answer for the struggling six-player group?
The answer for the struggling six-player group?

I recognise the difficulty that designers have in keeping everyone satisfied. As one of them has noted in the past, the hard-core gamer groups tend to be the ones who optimise their decks, plan most strategically, and generally do everything to make the game easier – then complain about the difficulty. I think though, that it’s definitely possible to see the trend of changes to the game being predominantly, if not exclusively in the direction of making it harder.

Unless Paizo change their marketing – and game shops change their stocking policies – so that Rise of the Runelords is constantly in stock everywhere, and pushed heavily as the “entry” AP, whilst newer ones are marked as being for “experts,” then all Adventure Paths need to be accessible to new players to the game. It’s on this basis that I think difficulty, especially when in dispute, should be pitched at the lower end of the options designers are considering – the seasoned veteran playing their third AP is more likely to put in the time to figure out a way of house-ruling or tweaking their game to make it fit their own play-style, than the new recruit who has just picked up a box of the shelf and knows only what’s written in front of them.

Conclusion

From the limited contact I’ve had with them through internet forums, I know that the developers of Pathfinder ACG listen to and respond to feedback from players at least as much as the developers of any game out there – I don’t think that anyone can fault them on their commitment to making this game good.

That said, I do feel that – for whatever reason – the designers idea of “making this good” does involve taking the difficulty level to places where significant numbers of the people playing the game find the fun sucked out of it, as it becomes just too damn hard. Whether this issue of difficulty stems from lack of player expertise, or from choosing and upgrading characters based on thematic preference rather than considered party optimisation, there has to be a place for these players. I’d love to see future APs come with included suggestions of designer-endorsed ways to increase / reduce difficulty, such as you’ll find in the core rulebook for Marvel Legendary – evidently, this would increase the amount of play-testing required for the game, and this might be why it’s not currently available, but I’d like to hope that the designers would at least consider it.

For the future, I hope that Errata, particularly of the character-nerfing variety is kept to a minimum, but I’d rather be involved in a game where the designers respond that one where you can risk taking home a broken product and being told “you bought it, no longer our problem.”

I’d also love to see (and would be prepared to pay the appropriate extra for) a story book, probably on a similar size and scale to the rule-book, which helped to flesh-out the narrative that can’t always be crammed onto the cards, and could provide the thematic logic for periods of calm sailing and for the suddenly crushing return of difficulty.

I’d be interested to know what people think – not just about specific issues, such as individual characters like Alain (feel free to share those too), but more generally about the way a game publisher and its team with designers deal with the community of players, to ensure the ongoing life of the game.

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