On Mechanical Misery
The party was almost completely murdered on Sunday. Their dwarf henchmen had picked up a magic blade, which overpowered his personality, causing him to fulfill the sword's special purpose, slay evil. The party's alignment tends towards neutral evil.
(Also, I know you see the picture, we're getting to that in a second)
On the way to the dungeon a random encounter was rolled. An adventuring party. I randomly determined the adventurers from my preset list. They were heading towards town away from the Dwarven ruins, carrying sacks filled with their haul. There were 8 of them, I made 3 of them men-at-arms, and the rest were mostly 1st level, with one dwarf F/T 5/6, and one elven F/M/C 3/2/3.
I'm sure you can see where this is going.
When the party shot a fireball at the adventurer's from the back, the dominated dwarven sword wielder activated the weapons detect evil ability and cut down the party mage and assassin.
After some discussion about a party disaster I discovered several enlightening things. The first was the player perception of the encounter was that 'it was a good idea to kill them because if we passed them, they could set up an ambush for us later.' This struck me as a by-product of the player/plot centric adventure design. My response was, how many people do you see walking down the street that you worry will set an ambush for you later? Few encounters with opponents have anything to do with a low level party or its players.
This led to the player responding, "See, this is why I like Pathfinder skills, like sense motive because then I could have made a check and just known what was going on with the other adventuring party." Enlightenment dawning, I responded, "Ah, well if you were curious about the motives of the encounter, i.e. the same information a successful sense motive check would have given, you could have just asked and I would have told you - no check is necessary."
The creation of subsystems (feats, skills) that encompass activities anyone should be able to accomplish (e.g. "They are an adventuring party returning from the Dwarven ruins, looking to get back to town as quickly and safely as possible. They wish you no harm, appearing to want to avoid this random encounter") is one of the biggest problems with modern rule systems. This design by limitation can lead to silliness (<- the picture reference), and restrict tactical infinity. An excellent assessment over the issue is addressed over at Comma, Blank_
Now this isn't to say that there's not some ground for design of a 'social combat system' or that well designed feats aren't possible. ACKS does an excellent job with its 'proficiencies' keeping them balanced and powerful - having them help define your character. Also, it is important to point out, this isn't the first player to note that I play many (but most certainly not all) human NPC's as terse and unwilling to engage armed strangers. (One former player said, "If this world is filled with assholes, it doesn't matter what I do!"). Also, I myself am more then guilty of player blindness (An encounter! Time to kill things I guess!).
How to navigate the waters of a game like Pathfinder, to allow agency an creativity without being restricted by design? This is my question. If you have any advice, comment below.