Saturday, May 17, 2014

Discussion: Roleplaying Perspective Part I: Ditching D&D and Pathfinder

 
 I'm starting up a Pathfinder campaign. While I am very excited for the game, it has spurred a lot of thoughts about roleplaying games and what the systems should do as opposed to what they actually do. This will be part of an ongoing series of discussions about roleplaying games and their nature and purpose as I come to grips with my game.



My return to D&D has felt strange. It isn't because the 3.5 that I last played years ago was now 3.75 and called Pathfinder. But it is because of where I've been in the meantime.

I am going to bash the hell out of D&D and Pathfinder. This isn't because I hate the systems or that the people who play them are terrible and those games are "beneath me" now. No. I'm getting ready to run a Pathfinder game now and I'm going to enjoy the shit out of it. However, I am not so blind as to not recognize the flaws of the system.

My primary complaint with D&D/Pathfinder is what the system is designed to do. Here is the copy of the front of a character sheet. Highlighted in red are all of the things that are related to combat or have rules about how they can be used in combat:



Here is the same character sheet. Highlighted in blue are all of the things that are designated for roleplaying. This isn't including things that aren't systems, such as picking your hair color or your eye color.



In other words, there really aren't any mechanisms for roleplaying in the game. There are no systems for it in the core design. In reality, the books are just massive tomes of rules for tactical combat.

The problem can be further illustrated by this example:

A man is standing in front of you, holding a key that you want. You have two options on how to obtain that key.

OPTION #1: You can try to take it by force. In which case, everything highlighted in red on the front of the character sheet is potentially in play.

OPTION #2: You can try to talk to the man and ask him to give it to you. In that case you can use what is highlighted in the blue. You can make a Diplomacy check. If you succeed, he gives you the key. If you fail, he doesn't. That's the end of your options.

Now, there are some that would argue that just rolling a Diplomacy check to see if he gives you the key isn't what you should be doing. Instead, you should "roleplay" the scene out and have the player act out what he is saying to convince the man. This is what my groups would tend to do. However, the problem with this is that you are no longer using the systems of the game to resolve something. In fact, if you are ignoring the game systems for all of the roleplay bits, then why are you using that system? For the tactical combat?

And that's what it comes down to. D&D and Pathfinder are not roleplaying systems. They are tactical combat systems.

This was not always the case, however. Older systems of D&D were not as bad as later systems. They still weren't great for roleplaying, but they at least were more narrative systems. D&D 3.0 killed that and every iteration since then keeps hammering more nails into that coffin.

Examining it further, you see that previous versions of D&D didn't use grids and big maps for everyone to lay their miniatures on. There were no hard and fast rules for movement. Sure, you could try to break out rulers to simulate movement, but there weren't systems in place for it.

This, admittedly, had drawbacks. With no physical representation of where everyone is, everyone could easily visualize things very differently. That Orc could be right on top of your magic-user in the DM's eyes, but you thought that it was obvious that you were standing behind the fighter.

However, it was a narrative system and that tells a much better story.

D&D 3.0 and later moved to a grid movement system. Now, characters move six squares per round.

Sure, you know where everything is, however, the narrative and storytelling is lost in this.

In the older systems, you had to tell the DM what you were doing. This is an amazing difference in creating atmosphere and a narrative arc for a battle.

In the old systems, when the DM asked you what you were going to do on your initiative, you would have to give a narration. Even if it was as simple as, "I charge the orcs," you have narration there. You are telling part of the story. But that is simply lost when you rely on a grid.

On your initiative in the old systems, you would say, "I rush onto the bridge to try to block the Balrog from passing to let the others escape."

However, in the new systems, this is, "I'll move two squares forward and one square to the right since if I move diagonally twice, it'll count as three squares. Now I threaten the eight squares around me ready with attacks of opportunity."

This matters in games. This is why I have come to hate combat in D&D. There are tons of great tactical combat games and tactical miniature battle systems. If I wanted to play one of those, I would. But I'm ostensibly playing a roleplaying game. So I would much rather have narration and challenge players to describe what they are doing and run with it.

In what should be a game that thrives and focuses on narration and storytelling, the newer systems took the largest section of the game--combat--and took all of the narration and storytelling out of it. Cynically, I could say that it was to sell miniatures.

The other problem with grids and maps to track combat is that it takes away the creativity of the players. You may not realize how much it does, but it really takes away a lot.

I remember running an old D&D game where one of the players had gotten in trouble with the city watch and was trying to fight them off while still on the run. He turned and entered the courtyard and I quickly gave a description of it, the guards on his heels. His response was, "I jump into the well."

I didn't say that there was a well in my description. In my little town map, there was no well there. Maybe he misheard me or maybe he just assumed that there was a well. But it was a brilliant move and very fitting for the scene and the moment. So, suddenly, there was a well there for him to jump into. He had to make a roll to stop from falling all of the way to the bottom and it became a quick, wild, fun twist.

The problem with grids are that you become confined by what it before you. It's not set in stone, but it's set in dry-erase marker. I would not have drawn a well onto our battlemat and so there would not be one. No player would look at that map and say, "I jump into the well."

So moments like that are lost. Newer editions took away the "just go with it" rules and attitude and structured everything to the point where roll for your downtime checks.

This used to be D&D.
My wife pointed out that D&D used to be something that you could play lounging on the floor together in someone's room with a few books and dice. But now it's that thing that you play at the table with a battlemap in laid out on it and miniatures prepared for every possible encounter for the evening.

But ultimately, the map takes away more options of narrative.

D&D shouldn't take away storytelling in combat and replace them with computer game combat mini-games.

My other biggest problem with D&D/Pathfinder is advancement.

First of all, it is a genius way to invest the players into their characters. A carrot is dangled in front of you as you constantly move toward more abilities, higher stats, more spells, and more hit points. And they are very liberally given out like candy along that endless route. And it feels like you are getting more invested in your character, but you're not. You are getting excited over having more abilities to kill shit so that you can become better at killing other shit. But that's not your character.

If you are excited because your character now has ties to the Thieves Guild and they have two noblemen both trying to court you at the same time while really spying on both of their houses for a rival prince from another nation, then, yeah, that's your character. However, D&D/Pathfinder has no actual systems for any of this stuff. So, since there are no systems for it, why bother using this system?

Another problem with advancement is that you pretty much exclusively do it by killing shit.

Player 1 spent the session courting the princess while pretending he was someone else. During the course of it, he was challenged about the truth of his story and, without rolling a die, he came up with an amazing tale that made his credentials seem beyond reproach. Later, he saw a beggar and felt such mournfulness in his heart as he remembered his father the smithy's collapse once he lost his arm and could no longer work. The player got so into character that he cried while he sat next to the beggar throughout the rest of the night, talking to him while the princess's party continued on without him.

Player 2 saw three goblins and killed them with his axe.

At the end of the session, Player 1 earned 0 XP and Player 2 earned 405 XP.

D&D/Pathfinder has no real systems for advancement in this manner. There are arbitrary mentions of story rewards, but it is not defined in any way like how it is defined for killing shit.

My other issue with advancement is the power creep. Or, actually, as it really is, the power rush. Admittedly, however, this is more of an issue of personal preference than an issue or flaw in the systems themselves, so I'll just touch on it briefly.

Early in your career, your party fights 3 Orcs and it is a good, tough slugfest. Then you level and you fight 5 Orcs. Then you level. And now those Orcs also have a Shaman. But you'll eventually hit a point where you leave the Orcs behind altogether. Twenty Orcs eventually become a joke, so why bother?

My problem is that you should never be so tough as to shrug off being outnumbered 20 to 1.  But unfortunately the massive power gains forces people to just creep up the Challenge Levels to the next set of baddies.

I'll end this part of this discussion with this:

Think about your favorite memory or memories from your D&D or Pathfinder games. Seriously. Stop and think about them.

Now what are they?

Did the mechanisms and systems in the rulebooks create that situation? Or was it from something not covered in the books?

Was your favorite memory when you rolled and succeeded at your Climb skill check? Was it when you rolled a natural 20 (something so amazing that there is a 1-in-20 chance of you doing it) to hit the baddie? Was it when you moved 6 squares in such a way that you were able to avoid any attacks of opportunity?

These are the things supported by the rules and the systems.

Or was your favorite memory when you came up with that speech on the fly and convinced the king to send his men to help you? Maybe it was when you swindled the merchant and tricked him out of his money? Or maybe it was the bond you had with another player's character and how you felt when his character died and you rushed to your certain death to try to avenge him?

None of those things are supported by the rules and the system.


And if our favorite memories from the game aren't from things that the game actually supports... then why are we playing that game instead of another one that supports the things that become your favorite memories?


In Part II I try to take a look at what different roleplaying systems are designed to do and some of the things that they do very well.

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