Wednesday, July 2, 2014

I Kissed a Pathfinder..and I Liked It (Pathfinder)

If you have been following this blog - and if you have, thank you! - you will be no stranger to my personal ambivalence towards d20 based games.

Why ambivalent? Well, like most of my generation, I started in this hobby by playing D&D; the original d20 game, back before d20 became a thing-unto-itself. So for me, d20 is the baseline by which all other games evolved outwards from. I can't really hate d20; d20 is my roots, after all. And within it are the basic building blocks for the hobby itself.

But...I've moved on, right? I have other, more advanced - more modern - game systems to play. Fate! Dungeon World! If I want a crunchy d20 game to play, I can spy Fantasy Craft right there on my shelf, waiting to be explored.

Plus, I've played a D&D 3.5 game, and I found the whole experience utterly lamentable. The basic problem was we had GM who was utterly committed to playing the game RAW with no exceptions: but really, if any game played RAW is a dull game, then it's just a bad game system. Right?


But...well, then there's Pathfinder. The sexier younger sister to D&D 3.5, with the beautiful art and presentation, with the legendarily well-written and flavorful modules ('Adventure Paths'), play-tested and fan-supported, all wrapped up in a cute little bow by local Seattle-area gaming studio Paizo.

Pathfinder always intrigued me. But not enough to play the damned thing. I flipped through the main book, and the modules, and the innumerable splat books with interest and appreciation..and then put them back on the shelf of my FLGS. Great stuff guys...but no thanks.

Flashback to 2012: looking for some gaming aids for my ongoing Fantasy Craft campaign, I stumbled across the Pathfinder Beginner Box. Complete with a playmat, some artful 'pawns' (cardboard miniatures), and set of dice, for just under $30.00? Sure..why not!?

And my gaming group used the hell out these tools: the dice rounded out my polyhedral collection well, and the map and pawns got plenty of use in our Fantasy Craft campaign. As for the rest - the character sheets and pregens, the Game Master Guide and Heroes Handbook- these stayed in the box as curiosity. Flipped through, but unread and unused.

Flash-forward to 2014. It's 8am on Saturday morning, and I'm packing up my stuff for Go-Play NW 2014. Gary has a supers game set for the day...but I've got nothing at all prepped to run. My eye spies the Pathfinder Beginner Box, and I think: sure, why not? If we have a spare moment during the day, I can run this. Easy-peasy.

Long story short: such a spare moment appeared, and I wound up running a game using the Black Fang's Dungeon scenario from the book. The result? I loved running it, and my group had a great time enjoying an old-school dungeon-crawl.

Before we go any further, note that I made some minor rules modifications before we even got started:

  • I failed to bring the playmat and minis, so movement and range were made to be largely narrative: Close (melee range), Near (penalty-free ranged attacks) and Far (ranged attacks at -2). Characters were allowed to move one 'zone' for free, or two by giving up an action.
  • Skill use was based on narrative justification: if you could justify the use of the skill, it was valid. If the book said 'Knowledge: Religion' was needed for the check, then 'Knowledge: Arcana' could sub as well.
  • Penalties for firing into melee combat? Attacks of opportunity? All narrative: the GM says when this stuff matters. If it slows things down or makes the experience doesn't matter.
  • You had to narrate what you were doing to do it. Attacking a goblin? Tell me how you are doing it! You succeed and kill a goblin? Narrate that shit: I want some cinematic flavor at my table, or it's all just boring numbers.

In short, I was running the game using Pathfinder mechanics to modify rolls, but acting like I was GM'ing a game of Dungeon World. And it worked like a dream, and fun was had by all.

What's the take-away from this experience?

For me, it's that any game system can be fun, provided that everyone - players and GM included - are committed to having fun. The minute that any rule gets in the way of that, that rule should immediately be abolished or ignored. 

Secondarily - but just as important - don't ever think of the players as agents that derail your story. They are there to contribute to the story. The players will do things not imagined by you or the module's designers: in this case, improvise!  

In the case of this module the scenario suggested either a resolution as a physical conflict or a diplomatic one: in reality, it was both with the players slaying King Fatmouth and interrogating a charmed goblin;  I chose as GM to provide the 'diplomatic solution' info via the charmed goblin, as this seemed the logical reward to this cautious approach. The story was thus adjusted based on player initiative, rather than being derailed altogether. 

So will I be running more Pathfinder games in the future? 

Sadly, the answer to this seems to be 'no'. My gaming group prefers the flavor found in newer - and more narrative, and flexible - game systems like Fate: as soon as I suggested we play Pathfinder ongoing the conversation led to talk of Fate Freeport being used for fantasy gaming. Which is great: I loves me some Fate gaming.

So for now, Pathfinder will have to live in inside of it's little Beginners Box, unloved and hardly played. But we did have a moment, once.

And I liked it.