Monday, May 19, 2014

Discussion: Roleplaying Perspective Part IV: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

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.

In the third part I talked about how D&D/Pathfinder invest you in your character, or at least it seems to, but the reality is that the systems to not invest you whatsoever. In this final part, I talk about how much all of this matters and will impact my game.

So, D&D/Pathfinder is a system with flaws and whose mechanisms are primarily for the purposes of tactical combat that has no systems in place for roleplaying or storytelling. The question then becomes, "How much of this will matter in my campaign and why am I playing Pathfinder?"

The immediate response to how much will it matter is: a lot. I am running a campaign where the characters are all the third or fourth born children of powerful noble houses in the kingdom. The characters are influential, but too far back in lineage to be in line to become heir. Essentially the campaign is designed to have a political tilt to it.

However, using the systems in Pathfinder, that means that we'll be making a lot of Diplomacy checks and that's it.

I don't want to avoid combat--this is a fantasy world and there are monsters and dangers around. However, I am dismayed that combat is the principle manner of advancement. First level characters can have, at most, 1 skill rank in Diplomacy. They cannot put another rank into Diplomacy until they reach second level. The literally cannot become more diplomatic until they kill fifteen goblins.

Combat in D&D and Pathfinder can be fun. I'm not opposed to them at all. However, too many combats become repetitive and slow down the story. Combats eventually tend to become stale and boring and I found that in my 3.0 and 3.5 campaigns that I would continually introduce new elements into the combats just to liven them up--slick surfaces, torrential downpours, more roleplaying of the monster's actions and movements instead of determining the best tactical position to move them in.

The reality of the game is that Diplomacy will rarely be rolled to determine most things. We will roleplay and act out what is being said and use dice when things are questionable or if I want to keep the reaction to their words a little more random.

As for why I am playing Pathfinder after bashing the flaws on the system, it is in large part familiarity. This isn't just meaning the rules, but also the history that we all have in D&D. Warts and all, we know the feel of the systems.

Each of us has amazing and awesome memories of characters and campaigns that we played in the past. As I pointed out, none of these memories are really supported by the system--they all came from things outside of the system--but we still associate those moments and memories with "playing D&D".

And I'm okay with that.

I love all of the indie roleplaying games that I talked about. I think each of them is far better at creating systems to tell stories and roleplay within. However, I will admit to the fact that I am conditioned to accept D&D/Pathfinder's character advancement methods as feeling "correct".

That is a little sad since I just went through a whole ordeal of pointing out how they are false investments. But they are familiar. Every MMO uses that model. Just about every video game RPG uses that model. I am excited to level up my Squirtle.

That doesn't stop me from wanting more, however.

I would be much more happy with all of the tactical combat rules bloat and the insane power escalations with the challenges escalating at the same insane power rate if at least the game also included systems for story and roleplaying.

I wouldn't mind the D&D advancements that much if they also allowed for systems of ties to other characters and NPCs. I would love to see that the heroes rescued the princess and now have five strings on her.

I would love it if there were systems wherein at the start of the session, the DM could ask the players what their character's goals were for the session. They could be as open ended or esoteric as befits the character. It could be as concrete as "Stopping the goblin raids" and "Sleeping with the shopkeeper's daughter", or as open as "Convincing people that I am not the coward they think I am" or "Trying to be a better person". Then, at the end of the session, have experience be rewarded by means of how well they progressed along their personal goals. Smaller goals reap less reward than larger ones.

Systems like this focus on the character and are meaningful and personal. I could gain a level without ever hitting a single goblin with a stick.

I could house rule that goal-based XP system if I wanted to, but it wouldn't work.

First of all, I stand by the fact that there are so many wonderful RPGs out there, that if I am so opposed to something that I have to make major house rules like that one, they why I am playing the system that I am playing?

But second, advancement makes you better at killing things. So it wouldn't make sense that I'm suddenly a better Fighter because I boinked the shopkeeper's daughter.

The other thing that turned me off to Pathfinder was when I happened to come across their FAQ. I understand where FAQs for systems are necessary for clarification and errors, but the long document is just a treatise of minutiae where there are new rulings superseding previous rulings. Not a single FAQ question was answered with: "Whatever works best for your campaign."

Again, this reinforces the lack of trust between the DM and the players.

But I want to reinforce and rely on trust. We are playing a campaign set in a kingdom where the characters have lived all of their life. I've given some principle characters in their pasts for them to interact and have relationships with, but in reality, they are young nobles who should have friends and know people.

I want to trust my players to add to the story. I am fine with my players entering a tavern and saying, "What do I see and who is here?" But I'm also completely fine with my players saying, "We go to the Branded Unicorn Pub to find Kells Jasper, a kid I grew up with who got involved with petty thievery." The Branded Unicorn Pub never existed before then and I've never heard the name Kells Jasper before.

I don't want to be DM to tell my story. I want to be DM to moderate our story.

I want my players to say, "I jump up and grab the chandelier to swing across the room to get past those guards and reach the fleeing thief," even if I never said that there was a chandelier in the room. I'm there to say, "This is a barn, there are no chandeliers." But I'm also there to say, "Great! The chandelier hangs low in the mansion's foyer. Give me an Acrobatics roll."

It isn't to say I want anarchy and players saying, "I pull a Vorpal Sword +5 from my backpack." But then again, I trust that my players wouldn't do that.

I've talked to my wife about the different indie RPGs that we've played and other ideas and systems. She says that she doesn't like the systems where she has to act as the DM or Storyteller.

But the thing about how I want to play is that the DM is there to be the bookkeeper and arbiter and to set story and challenges and introduce danger and threat. She wouldn't have to worry about being the DM. But she's been the Storyteller a lot without realizing it.

In the first campaign I played with her, her character Erineese flirted and became romantic with the NPC accountant Cromwell. This was the story she introduced. And that story impacted the party and everything else. The NPC accountant who was supposed to be in just one adventure was hired by the party and later, because of her character's actions, became a more dominant NPC in the stories and even had party storylines and adventures that were sparked because of him.

We let the players create stories that affect our world all of the time. In fact, we encourage them to do it.

So why not trust them with a little more power to make a chandelier hanging from the room or a well in the middle of town or to know a little dive of a bar that he used to frequent when he was younger where he met a couple of people who might be able to help him along?

So, in the end, I'm comfortable with the campaign using the Pathfinder system, even though it is a terrible system for everything that I want to do in a campaign.

And that's because there is a trust between me and my players. We'll have fun regardless of the system and we'll all tell some fun and entertaining stories together. But all of this is regardless of the system. I have hundreds of dollars of books consisting of thousands of pages of combat options that will ultimately be the slowest and least interesting part of the game and all of the most memorable parts will be from things not covered in the rules.

But it's familiar. And we're conditioned to the false investment it gives.

I've always said that with the right people, I could have fun roleplaying in any system. And that's true. But maybe one day there will be a fantasy based system that we will have fun roleplaying with it instead of having fun roleplaying despite it.


  1. Hi Charles,
    Really interesting series of articles.

    If there's any chance you would consider ditching Pathfinder, have you looked at FATE? It does what you'd love Pathfinder to do but can't deliver on, with lots of stuff to link character to skills and "aspects". See for yourself here: It's really worth investing into, I find.

    Best, and good luck with your campaign!

    1. Thanks!

      And Fate is a system that I've heard of, but have not really looked too deeply into. Though I've recently been loving my experience with trying as many different systems as possible to see what they do differently. So I'll definitely check out FATE.

      I'm also interested in the Burning Wheel. I think that it might actually handle some of the things that concern me a bit better. Burning Wheel players swear by it, but I just haven't ever played it.

  2. Hi Charles,

    Really good articles. I used to think about these things a lot. But then my players wasn't interested in changing the good ol' hacking experience into something more story oriented so I completely stopped playing for like ten years. But now my interest is rekindling :) .

    1. Thanks. I started to explore a lot of the indie RPGs with s smaller group of people, but as some of our old D&D group is getting together again for this game, they sort of feel like the "crunchiness" of D&D/Pathfinder make it feel more "epic". Rules light systems don't attach you to your characters as well for them, so long term campaigns don't invest them as much.

      I would definitely check out the indie RPGs though if your interest is rekindling. Not all of them are good for long-term campaigns, but a lot of them can be played in an evening or two, which is an easier commitment to get from people on the edge or who are leery of any game where you can't smash things with your sword.

  3. First, I want to say I really enjoyed reading all four parts. I think you finally hit the real deal on this last article. Having fun is really based on a desire to do so. The system is just a catalyst to steer imagination. Like I mentioned in a response to your first article (the re-post on RPG Geek), everyone I've played RPGs with approaches the game in a similar manner to monoply's free parking, it's always tweeked by at least one house rule to tailor the game to the likes/wants/needs of the group that is playing together. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! 8')

  4. It's an older game, but I was wondering if you've ever tried Amber: the Diceless RPG? Your story makes me think Amber would be a nice fit.

  5. I would highly recommend the new D&D 5th Edition. While it is, at it's core, a "D&D" style of roleplaying game, they have taken great strides to bring back the roleplay elements that used to exist in the older editions. Things like no grid maps, backgrounds made during character creation (including ideals, bonds, & flaws), rewarding roleplay with mechanical benefits, streamlined and fast combat, bounded accuracy (no more huge numbers and everything scaling with the players)... The list goes on, but I really think this system will suit you better than Pathfinder. It's closer to what you are hoping for. Plus the basic rules are a FREE download on their site! :)