Monday, January 9, 2012

Meditating on Pathfinder

Since the Big News of the day is the advent of 5e D&D, I thought I’d buck the trend and speak about one of the reasons why Hasbro has been forced in this particular direction in the first place — Pathfinder. (Besides which, Jeff Rients pretty much sums up everything I might say on the subject with his open letter to WotC).

As I have said several time before, I play with a bunch of guys who were introduced to the hobby via 3e. I have split time running campaigns with other guys, depending on who has an itch to run a game. When I first began doing this, the other campaigns we played were 3.5 games. More recently, these games have been 1st ed AD&D. Well, a couple of the guys from our group have been getting the urge to go back to their roots and play a little 3.5.

For the most part, the group wasn’t all that interested. Our table very much likes the fast-paced combat achievable with earlier editions. The amount of stuff that can be accomplished in an evening of gaming using LL or AD&D far outstrips what we did while using 3.5. Thus, the whole discussion was a bit of a non-starter. That is, until someone brought up the possibility of playing Pathfinder using the Kingmaker Adventure Path.

I happen to really like Paizo, their attitude and their relationship they have with the community. I even gave my two cents during the open play test of Pathfinder. Thus, though I have never had occasion to purchase any of their products, I have rooted for them. The closest I ever came to actually forking over part of my limited gaming budget to them was when they published the Kingmaker Adventure Path. It intrigued me to no end — I wanted to see how one would go about doing a sandbox with a complex ruleset like Pathfinder.

So, when one of our guys volunteered to run it, I was actually very interested to see what would happen. Due to life issues, we decided to take a short break from my own campaign to take advantage of my own relatively busy schedule in December and his own relatively light schedule to go all in for the last month with Pathfinder.

The campaign has been relatively successful. Pathfinder does all the things 3.5 does well better. I say this with one caveat. Having had experienced the abstract combat style of LL, our GM has adopted several of the conventions that we use while playing LL. This speeds things up considerably and still allows for some crunch for those that want it (and who needs to pull out maps and figures for most wilderness encounters anyway?) In addition, our GM adjudicates all skill rolls — he either rolls them himself or simply arbitrarily declares success. This has had the wonderful side affect of encouraging more role playing than roll playing.

Unfortunately, Pathfinder still suffers from many of the flaws that 3.5 does. Personally, I would not wish to invest the kind of time necessary to ever run a Pathfinder campaign. In addition, we have averaged one character death per session (something we have grown accustomed to with older editions). The problem is that even when a player knows what they are doing, creating a new character takes forever. We have alleviated this a bit by having NPCs available to play. This strategy, while fine with old-school guys like myself, defeats one of the reasons why some of our group (and a whole segment of gamers) like to play 3.5 & Pathfinder— testing character builds against game conditions.

If I am honest, I can greatly sympathize with this particular mindset because I have spent many an hour doing various kinds of builds to test in game play. The major difference between my own gaming experience and those who enjoy this aspect of 3.5/Pathfinder play is that the major outlet I have had over my gaming life has been through various war games.

Car Wars, Starmada, ARES and Renegade Legion (Interceptor) among others are all games that I spent lots of time making builds and then testing them in game play. I did the same with two what are ostensibly RPGs but more often than not my friends and I used with arena combat scenarios to test character builds — Champions and GURPS. The most common scenario my friends and I ran with Champions was the Danger Room — which is, in essence, a war game. The only original version of GURPS I still own is its precursor Man to Man — an arena-type war game that uses what would become the GURPS combat system.

Thus, that occasional itch to make what in 3.5/Pathfinder are character builds I scratch with war games or RPGs that can be played as war games. It makes me wonder if the cultural divide between 3.5/4th ed players and earlier edition players is in part a generational thing. Guys my age grew up with war games — I had certainly played several different war games prior to ever hearing about D&D. The guys I now play with are all young enough that what I had readily available as board and mini-games had all been displaced by video games. With no real outlet other than RPGs to scratch that character-build itch, is 3+ D&D for many gamers today what war games are/were for me?

In the end, I very much enjoy the campaign; however, if your goal is to play Pathfinder in an old-school style, old school rules do a much better job without all the negatives the complex rules bring with it. Kingmaker is fun, but if I ever ran it myself, I would convert it to LL + AEC in a heart beat.


  1. I agree with you and have had a similar experience to your own it sounds. Though I have to say I haven't played any of the OSR stuff. I like the concept of LL, LotFP, OSRIC, C&C, etc. etc. but getting people to play them in my own gaming group has been a non-starter. We had a brief run of success with 4e, where the game did what it does ... ran like a miniature D&D board game. Being a group with a healthy mix of mini wargamers we found some things to like about that. For me though D&D has never been the same since the days of 2nd ed ended. The grid killed D&D for me .. though I've probably played in 20 3.0-4e era D&D campaigns (I've lived in two towns and had to rebuild a group, so I've been through alot of games). I feel the same way you do about Paizo. I like the company and the guys running it and the way they treat their customers and community ... I own the fat rulebook and have played a single six session campaign. It was OK ... it was as you say like a 3.5 game but a little better. For me I can't help but feel that D&D is terminally ill ... the version wars are killing it ... and the endless onslaught of video games is going to slowly tear down all tabletop gaming. Getting gamers to not be total flakes, to agree on things, and to put down the keyboard and controller long enough to do some face to face gaming is getting harder and harder. I think the demise of 4e and the eventual roll out of 5th ed is too little too late. For me I think the only D&D I'll play for the rest of my life will probably be D&D with my children when they get a bit older ... other than that it is just a fading memory for me now ... so try as I might I can't take joy in the death of 4th ed or the announcement that 5th ed is coming with a focus on reunification.

  2. Yes, i'm not sure that Pathfinder is doing so well because it is a better game. Rather, they are doing well because they treat their clients with more respect.

  3. Personally, I think that where Paizo shines is in their accessories. I've never played Pathfinder. I never intend to play Pathfinder. But I've purchased decks of items and NPCs. I've purchased battle mats. I've purchased some of their modules and "fluff books". I've purchased a few of their re-printed books of pulp classics. The way I see it is that they are providing value, by offering me content that I can not readily produce myself, and which make my games more interesting.

    Dave, I agree with you on the generational shift notion. I'd tie the notion of "character builds" though to Magic and other CCGs. Characters essentially become a collection of skills / traits in much the same way that a CCGs emphasize a deck-engine built out of specific cards. This style of play is infiltrating not just RPGs but boardgames more generally (e.g., Dominion, Race for the Galaxy, etc.). The games are cheaper to manufacture and easier to play test. Personally, I mostly dislike this style of game because the barriers to entry are high. To play a game well requires that a player be familiar with all the pieces of the game, but there are some interesting hybrids (e.g., Twilight Struggles). Like you, I grew up with war games that involved stacks of "chits" and which rules defined relatively generic interactions with an environment.

  4. @LoE
    For me I can't help but feel that D&D is terminally ill
    The brand may be, but I don't believe the hobby is. Grant it, it is a niche hobby, but unlike other niche hobbies it is very inexpensive to get involved and to stay involved. I would also add, that in my own experience, once people (of any age) get a taste of the old ways they not only see it as a legitimate option, but in many cases the better option.

    Exactly. Paizo saw WotC make a marketing mistake when they abandoned 3.5 and its customer base. Paizo took advantage, treated those jilted customers with utmost respect and reaped the benefits.

    Personally, I think that where Paizo shines is in their accessories.
    Exactly. Their products are some of the best in the industry; however, they haven't done anything that I need or want for my particular style of play. That quality and their attitude towards the community has me always looking, though.

    I'd tie the notion of "character builds" though to Magic and other CCGs.
    So would I. It isn't a coincidence that an edition of D&D produced by the company that brought us Magic has elements of CCGs.

    In a way, this only reinforces my point. CCGs are the least satisfying way to "test builds" out there. While several of them are entertaining, I could never get over the feeling that I was being ripped off even when I wasn't paying for the decks I was using. 3e is a much more satisfying way to spend your money on builds.

  5. Smart comments, I am of your generation and played CAR WARS, MEKTON, and many other "build-y" games alongside 1e AD&D.

    I also think Pal has it right when he says that a big part of Paizo's success is its attitude toward its clients / fans.

  6. Does Kingmaker succeed at being a sandbox or is it just a sandboxy path (if that makes any sense)?

  7. @Matthew
    So far I think it does succeed as a sandbox. The whole point of the campaign is to explore a particular territory. How you do that and what you do when you get there is entirely up to you. As a player, I feel absolutely no obligation to do things in a particular way or in a particular order. Thus, I am free to interact with the world in whatever way I choose. I have played other Paizo Adventure Paths, and this one has a significantly different feel, which is one of the reasons why the campaign has been so entertaining for me.

  8. Interesting comments on Kingmaker here. I have so far totally ignored the Adventure Paths, assuming that they were the epitome of railroading. Is there no implied order in the path books, and if so what does the numbering mean?

  9. @Brendan
    The other Adventure Paths I have played do tend to be a bit railroady.

    As I understand it, the different Kingmaker books deal with specific areas within the sandbox. I don't know this, but I think there is also a progression in difficulty from book to book. This progression is difficult to discern as a player, however. We have had encounters with things as weak as kobolds and with things as powerful as a group of trolls and the errant will-o-the-wisp. If one doesn't take to heart the mantra "run away, live to fight another day" you are very likely to see a TPK virtually anywhere on the map...

  10. Thanks for the info. I might need to pick this up some time then. So far, my only Pathfinder purchase has been the GameMastery Guide, which I found to be somewhat disappointing.

  11. Unrelated but humorous story:

    I was using my iPhone to send a note to myself about your Conan & Alignment post. "Blood of Prokopius" was autocorrected to "Blood of pork opium" which I find insanely funny for some reason.

    1. I have to admit, I laughed myself. Having discovered this technical glitch, you now have a responsibility to come up with some kind of in-game magical/narcotic substance called Blood of pork opium and its affects... ;)