Crafting – What elements of the crafting rules are realistic? (Part 1)

by lyletealeaf

The primary goal of the designers in making Pathfinder’s crafting rules was probably not to realistically model pre-industrial manufacture. Simplicity and fun should come before realism, for example. All the same, this post is going to look at the attributes of the crafting rules and discuss what results of the mechanics are realistic or unrealistic because that was a point of discussion of an acquaintance.

Overview of the system

The craft system in Pathfinder allows the character to transform unspecified raw materials into another product. As written, the value of the finished good of ordinary quality is three times the value of the raw materials. Each good has a difficulty level and price associated with it, and these are crucial quantities to the formula because they govern whether a craftsman can make the item and how long it will take the worker. To make progress at producing a good, the craftsman’s skill check for the effort must meet or exceed difficulty level for the good. A good is finished when the product of the skill check and the difficulty level meets or exceeds the price in silver pieces. Skillful or hurried craftsmen may elect to increase the difficulty of the good by increments of five to speed production. Failing a skill check badly results in wasted raw materials and a ruined product. Simple failures result in no progress for the week. The skill check can be influenced by many modifiers including: craftsman’s skill, tools, settlement modifiers, assistants, and local conditions.

Ratio of the prices of raw materials and finished product

The good produced has a list price in the rules that is denominated in gold pieces and the price of the raw materials to make that good are one-third of that price. I don’t know whether this ratio is appropriate for pre-industrial production, though perhaps one day I will research that question. The Pathfinder rules themselves provide for examples of these deviations in the settlement modifiers that raise or lower the prices of certain goods without increasing the price of th raw materials.

The existence of a single ratio for all domains of production is defensible, if unrealistic simplification because even in a pre-industrial setting there will be some producers of raw materials with more or less market power in times of calm (e.g. economic equilibrium) than the craftsmen. It might also be that the skill is particularly in demand and the produced good is much more valuable than the raw materials. The raw materials might come from a monopoly source (e.g., a single mine) or the craftsmen might have a strong guild that can control input prices. As a general rule, this is a reasonable simplification, and I would assume that one-third is the setting-wide average ratio of raw material to finished product price. For all these reasons it is not realistic to have the same ratio apply to all trades.

The GM should feel confident from a realism point of view about raising or lowering this ratio in the face of social circumstances or shocks to the supply of materials because the factors are not rare today nor were they unusual in the past. Local famines were frequent before the agricultural revolution and improved transportation made regional food markets inexpensive. The shock of a bad harvest would move up the supply chain easily. Less universal examples include kobolds capturing a key mine supplying iron for the production of weapons or the discovery of a huge cache of gems sold by adventurers for the production of jewelry.

Role of randomness in production

There are two ways that randomness and uncertainty bear on the Pathfinder craftsman’s work: unforeseen events and craft skill rolls.

I already mentioned an example of the first – mining accidents making quality iron harder to come by. If only low quality iron were available, this might apply an unforeseen -2 to the skill check and might slow down an experienced craftsman. This kind of randomness in the production process is fun and realistic.

For a sufficiently skilled craftsman, there is no randomness in the transformation of inputs to products. While the societal modifiers might raise or lower the prices, a sufficiently skilled will create a definite amount of product. This isn’t completely unrealistic in the sense that an experienced worker might be able to perform predictable amount of work on a well-understood task, but this breaks down quickly if the product is something new, challenging, etc. This brings us to whether a series of d20 rolls against a target number is a reasonable way to model the time it takes and ultimate success of a project.

While each d20 roll is itself a uniformly distributed random integer from 1 to 20. However, the actual craft process has three possible outcome’s for a week’s roll: success, failure, and bad failure (fail by more than 4). Within a successful roll there is also a distribution of results because a better roll will mean more hypothetical value added than a roll that barely passes. The progress is equal to the product of the DC and the total roll with modifiers in silver pieces.  When the full value has been reached through these successes, the work is finished.

To show how much the process can vary for a craftsman who is not taking 10, I have created a figure showing the distribution of time taken and value created before a bad failure by a +7 craft bonus worker on an “infinite cost project’. The dark blue line shows the median time taken and value added and the gray area is the 90th percentile to 10th percentile of outcomes. As shown below, the 50%of  crafting attempts needing an 11 to pass will not make not make it past 2 weeks of attempts before ruining the raw materials. In that time,the median +7 craft process will create about would be able to complete a 40gp item.  Past 11, there is a quick drop off productivity with 50% of craft attempts not being able to complete anything of value if a 16 is needed. Large projects are ambitious even if the target is only an 11, only 10% of projects needing an 11 will accrue four average successes (about a 160gp item).

To return to the topic of realism, the crafter making taking some risk in his effort with a somewhat ambitious project (target roll 11) can expect to have a decent chance of having to start over or at least have a “one-week job” (based 40 gp price) take two weeks even if things go reasonably well (median result).  Very challenging might take many attempts (10 or more) to complete or worse, be effectively impossible,  to complete something that could have taken only  a small fraction of the time for a craftsman with moderately higher skill.  This kind of variation is not uncommon in work, but the distribution of the difference between a 50% outcome and a 90% outcome is an outcome of the game mechanics rather than something inherent to real life which might have a much wider variance in typical outcomes.