On Pathfinder

I told you that story to tell you this one: I’m starting to wonder if I’m done with Pathfinder.

The more I read about Pathfinder and the more I understand the designers’ intentions and the way players use it, the more I see how at odds I am with it. I started with Pathfinder expecting it to be like a fixed D&D 3E, and as I understand it that was the explicit intention and marketing pitch. For me this meant a simulationist game where everything worked using a similar set of rules and thus everything was comparable, but where magic was no longer the be-all and end-all skill that invalidated any other option. It meant removing or repairing the most frustrating parts of the rules and leaving the core intact. It meant getting back to the idea of “storytelling with conflict resolution, which we admit is primarily but not exclusively though combat” and away from the “make numbers go up so you can feel good about yourself” style. I get the latter enough in my online games, thank you very much.

But from what I see in releases, the community, official forums, etc., that’s not what Pathfinder actually is. Instead it’s all about optimized, magic-heavy, power-and-control play. It’s exactly what I’ve been telling people D&D is not for the better part of ten years. It’s not unlike finding out a poem doesn’t mean what you thought it meant, in that there’s a whole body based on the alternative interpretation while you’re a quiet little voice offering an alternative to which nobody feels the need to listen.

I’ve gone back and forth for a while on whether this is something that’s actually happening or it’s just a story I’ve made up based on limited exposure. But I see it in the official designs, too. For example, consider healing. In D&D it’s a benchmark skill, required at all levels of play. But in Pathfinder, healing isn’t even a thing. The only point of a healer is to provide emergency supplication so the players can survive long enough to repair themselves between battles with wands of cure light wounds. Instead, a healer is best played as a striker, because it’s more mathematically viable to kill a monster and thus prevent it from dealing damage than it is to heal a character a half-hit from death. Because in a world where characters are expected to either win the battle in the first two turns, deal (level * 10) damage per round every round, or rebuild the character until they do, mathematical viability is all that matters.

It’s this world into which Paizo has released its last few books. Consider Pathfinder Unchained, the Advanced Class Guide, and Occult Adventures. Among them they introduced twenty classes. Of those, only one is capable of being a full healer. A second can spoof it with archetypes at the expense of most of its other class features. But almost all of them are designed to do absurd amounts of damage. This is our meta.

The community even has its own language for how the system now works. “Traps” are feats, class features, and other options that seem neat but aren’t optimized enough to keep up with the most powerful choices in each category; Vital Strike is a trap because you can do more damage attacking twice than attacking once with a damage bonus, and non-spellcaster characters are expected to use full attack actions every round to maximize damage. “Rocket tag” is the style of play where high-level characters hurl catastrophically powerful abilities, usually spells, at each other, and the first to make one connect essentially wins the fight; this is ostensibly a gaming style to be avoided but it’s also the only way anybody seems to know how to play above L10. “MAD” is “multiple ability dependent”, a class or feature based on more than one ability score; this is a detriment because SAD (“single ability dependent”) classes can boost one ability score, like Intelligence, to the stratosphere and build their entire character around it by ignoring everything else that goes into a person.

It’s the same language I hear when people discuss competitive games like Magic: the Gathering. But Pathfinder isn’t supposed to be competitive. Players aren’t supposed to be doing everything they can to break the game wide open and assert dominance over an opponent. It’s supposed to be cooperative, where you work with people to achieve a goal. It’s literally in the first paragraph of the first chapter of the Core Rulebook:

Think of [Pathfinder] as a cooperative storytelling game, where the players play the protagonists and the Game Master acts as the narrator, controlling the rest of the world.

Competitive, high-powered play only works if everybody is equally in on it. If this isn’t what you want, the community’s message is clear: you’re either playing the game wrong or you’re playing the wrong game. And hearing that message, time and time again, from every direction including the designers, is exhausting. I don’t need my pastimes to exhaust me.

This isn’t to say I want to abandon Pathfinder completely. I still like the core ruleset, and it still gives me that dungeonpunk feel I want out of a game. But it means I’ll spend my time on other systems, and when I do run Pathfinder it won’t be as she is intended. I need a game where instant-death spells are discouraged, where clever tactics are rewarded more than the best builds Reddit can come up with, where there’s more focus on character stories and growth and a logical world than on gathering a handful of dice and eying the DM threateningly. Mechanically I’ll use our alternate system for save-or-dies, using them more as dramatic finishing moves than turn-one dominance tactics, and I’ll keep working on themes, intended to bring “character” back into “character design”. The lyrics stay the same, but the rhythm changes.

But this means I’m essentially leaving the Pathfinder community, because they want something I don’t and vice versa. I’m not sure how big a loss this is; certainly Pathfinder won’t notice my absence, and I’ve been so put off by the Pathfinder community from the moment I encountered it that I’m not losing any significant emotional investment. It still hurts, though, to work in something for so long only to find out it was never for you in the first place.

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Metathesiophobia

I’ve had Pandora for several years. I’ll have days at works where I have Pandora on pretty much straight through. It’s single-handedly responsible for most of my metal playlist, and thus for my collection of Iron Savior songs, and thus for the longest-running plot in my longest-running campaign. I’m a fan.*

But I’ve noticed a curious tendency I have when I’m using it. Consider my a cappella playlist, where I gave Pandora a series of all-vocal songs to use as seeds. I’ve made sure to only thumbs-up similar vocals-only songs (okay, and one or two by Van Canto), and for the most part I’ve gotten what I wanted. The biggest outliers are comedy tracks. A few of my initial seeds were comedy songs, so Pandora assumed I wanted comedy songs as much as I wanted a capella. Especially comedy songs in a country music style. Especially political comedy songs in a country music style. This was wrong.

Faced with this attack on my intentions, I rejected every song that didn’t meet my criteria hoping to goad Pandora more into the style I wanted. Eventually it worked, and I now have a mostly valid playlist…except for the longest time there were a few a cappella songs I didn’t really like that nonetheless appeared in heavy rotation. This is because I didn’t dare thumb them down. I consider my playlist a delicate house of cards where removing any a capella song, no matter how little I liked it, could convince Pandora to return to the post-apocalyptic days of guitars, drawls, and words that only rhyme with “Obama” is you squint really hard.

I don’t know if Pandora started figuring things out or just expanded their songlist, because in the last nine months a glut of new, good songs have appeared, and approving them finally gave me enough purchase to feel comfortable kicking out the worst offenders. But the point isn’t how amazing my mixtape is and how you totally have to listen to it. It’s that I engineered, in my own mind, a situation where the fear of change paralyzed me into sticking with something I didn’t actually like in case its presence was saving me from a worse fate.

Speaking of which, my current gaming groups.

I’m currently involved in three campaigns, one of which is with a group that has been meeting more or less consistently for ten years. We’ve had people duck in for a campaign here and there, but they’re more like guest stars. Our five man band has a lot of shared history that I imagine is intimidating to anybody trying to elbow their way into one of our games. More than that, we’re fairly comfortable with each other and more than a little reluctant to allow somebody new. This is despite the fact that every new person we’ve had, barring one, has been a joy to have at the table and worked their way in almost seamlessly, inside jokes notwithstanding.

But still, even after far more good than bad when it comes to new players, we’re still a little gun-shy about fresh blood. Almost as gun-shy as we are about new games, which if you think about it is even more ridiculous. If somebody joins a campaign and we don’t work out, we have to go through the “it’s not you, it’s all of us, independently, somehow” conversation. If we don’t like a game, we just have to say “it occurs to me that none of us like GURPS and we should try something else next week”. The barriers to entry for trying a new gaming system are ridiculously low, but we still never do it.

Part of that is a comfort level thing. We like knowing how common rules work without looking them up, we like knowing our macros more or less function as intended, we like knowing that if we have a really sticky question we have three DMs in the room who can piece it together, etc. But I think more of it is the nagging question, “what if we don’t like it?” Which, all told, is a pretty trash argument. We’re talking about giving a roleplaying system a spin. It’s not a skydiving course.

There’s so much out there I want to do that I haven’t. I want to get back into Fate. I liked ICONS. II’m dipped my toes into a Powered by the Apocalypse game. I’ve been wanting to try Savage Worlds and Big Eyes, Small Mouth for years. But whenever we bring it up, we agree that it’s a neat idea and then don’t do anything about it, because we’re already playing D&D or Pathfinder, and why would we do something different if what we’re doing works?

It’s not like I’m suddenly going to drop everything to go on an RPG system world tour. In one group we’re running a Pathfinder campaign during the break of a different Pathfinder campaign. In the other we’re coming to the end of a 4E campaign, and it will be followed by a Pathfinder campaign because I’ve had a key player threaten to quit if I try running it in a different system. I’m also not going to abandon either group if they’re not interested in trying something new. But the next time the opportunity arises I’m going to push it pretty hard, and this post serves as my declaration of intent.

…I’ll probably keep the same blog name, though.

* — I am aware of Google Play, and I have thought about it. But when I looked at it today the first thing it recommended to me was Green Day, then Red Hot Chili Peppers. I don’t think Google Play and I will be friends.

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Loose Session Design

One of the most daunting tasks for new DMs is figure out how much freedom to give the players. Campaigns operate roughly on a scale from “railroad”, where the DM confines the players to rails and sends them through a plotline with limited opportunity for choice, and “sandbox”, where the DM lets the players do whatever they want with little to no guidance. Usually the best way lies somewhere in between, where the DM decides some aspects of the campaign and determines the rest with the party during actual play.

But there’s a reason DMs have a tendency to railroad: planning is hard. If your players can visit an elven, dwarven, or orcish castle in the next session, that’s three different places to explore, three sets of NPCs to meet, and three potential sets of plotlines. If they can skip the castles entirely and go dungeon-diving or shopping, that’s even more content for you to prepare. Once the players hit a certain threshold of freedom it’s impossible to plan for everything they could do. Improvisational DMs can run a session with little or no notice, but most DMs need to know what they’re doing if for no other reason than they’re using the wonderful Live GameScreen and need all their NPCs to have portraits.

Here’s the thing, though: no matter what the players choose, you only need to plan one or two sessions. That is, no matter whether the players go to the mountains or the farms or the enemy base, they’ll meet a gruff NPC who helps them if they can prove they’re worth her trouble and they’ll be harried by the enemy archers. The specifics can change (the NPC can be a miner, farmer, or scout, and the archers can use the elevation to their advantage, set fire to crops from afar, or man enemy watchtowers) but the work you do planning the session does not triple just because the players have three options. If you create something sufficiently generic you can slot it in no matter where the players go.

That’s the basic concept behind loose session design: plan such that you don’t have to plan more. It requires a bit of making things up as you go, but you have enough of a structure that you only need to fill in the details live. For NPCs, pick a personality or motivation or occupation and leave the rest to become whatever fits the party’s situation. For monsters, build a stat block without any of the descriptive words; you know this creature has a +9 to attack and deals 2d6+5 damage, but you don’t have to know whether it attacks with a bite, a slam, or horns just yet. For maps, make something with labels but no descriptions so you can decide whether the manor’s parlor is “tasteful but old-fashioned” or “opulent and gaudy” based on whether the party visited the elderly noble or his prodigal grandson. You’re leaving intentional question marks in your session design and filling them in when you need them. Loose session design saves you time by only requiring the amount you strictly need to prepare for a session, and it doesn’t force you to improvise more than you can handle because you decide how many question marks to leave.

See, players have no idea what you’re actually doing (and, often, vice-versa). They don’t know you’re going to give them a gruff NPC anywhere they go, as long as you don’t do it everywhere they go. If your notes just say “Session 1: gruff. Session 2: helpful but ineffectual. Session 3: super racist.” they’ll meet three very different people, but you don’t have to build full stat blocks for all three of them right this second. Their actions determine whether the helpful NPC is a town guard, a lovable ruffian, or a traveling merchant. It’s the same with monsters, or maps, or even rules-intense things like magic items and rules-light things like plot threads. If you want to have an NPC task the players with stealing back an heirloom from a wizard and have him give the players a weapon in return, you can decide the wizard is a duergar and the item is an axe once the players tell you they’re heading to dwarven lands.

This works best when you design your next session with the players’ decision in mind and show them the results of their choice. You don’t want to give players the illusion of choice, you want to give them actual choice by letting their decisions have meaning. If they went to the mountains, they cut off the enemy’s supply chain for weapons and armor but the enemies at the farm might scorch the land out of spite. If they stormed the enemy castle, the enemy is in disarray but the remaining camps have time to shore up their own defenses. This isn’t about creating several branching paths or about creating a single path with a couple of mutable details, it’s about letting the players do something and deciding how the world reacts. Unlike railroading, where there’s only one path because the DM declared it, the players are guiding the story every step of the way, and unlike a sandbox campaign you’re only preparing things session-by-session instead of taking on way too much work at once.

Loose session design generally requires only two things: some item that has question marks and some resource to fill in those question marks. It’s easiest when each of these is self-contained; you decide an NPC’s personality but don’t decide their class or build, then when you decide what class they are during play you use a stat block from a book, website, or existing NPC. You can also use part of a stat block, like knowing the villain is a wizard but not filling his spellbook until you know whether he’s commanding the lizardfolk in the swamp or animating undead in the sewers. Maps with blank or incomplete keys work great, and the Internet is full of random generators that will give you names or descriptions at the drop of a hat.

This is applicable even in preparation-heavy campaigns. Consider the Zelda campaign I’m running, where most things are pretty solidly defined. NPCs have names and portraits far before they appear because I have to understand how they fit into the various quests the players can do. I have to have all my maps done ahead of time, including knowing where every treasure and puzzle is, because I have to have them ready to hand to the players when they come across the map and compass. I have to know what my monsters are doing, how they fit into the dungeon theme, how they complement or work against each other, and what their stats are so I can put them into Live GameScreen. Pretty much everything I listed above is already pretty rigid.

But I don’t have to decide what personalities or affectations my NPCs have until my players meet them. I don’t write room descriptions ahead of time so I can be as vague or specific as my players have patience for when they arrive. I don’t have to decide how many enemies are in each room, or of what types, until the players enter that room and I know how long we’ve spent on the dungeon up to then and what resources they have left. Even with all the planning I’m doing, I could be doing more, and I feel I’m better off leaving those bits until I need them. This will make things a little harder for anybody who wants to take my notes and run the campaign after me, but that’s not really my problem right now.

I think that’s the biggest argument against loose design. When you make things up on the fly it’s hard to remember what you said to the players and what you just thought about. It’s why a key NPC in this campaign changed names (twice) and why another failed to appear nearly as often as I’d intended. When my players ask a question, one of my common responses is “What did I say?”, which is equal parts “Did you listen to what I told you, or are you making up for your inattention by slowing down the game?” and “No, seriously, remind me what I said out loud because I don’t remember how I reskinned this puzzle last week.” It’s a problem that can be solved with copious note-taking, but that gets harder the longer the campaign goes and it’s never been my strong suit anyway. If you have time to make notes at the end of the session, do that. If you don’t, your players will set you straight.

Like any muscle, the more you use half-prepared, half-spontaneous session design, the better you get with it. In fact, you’re probably already doing it no matter what style you like. It’s one of the system’s assumptions, that a DM will prepare key information like NPCs and encounters but go freeform during the turn-by-turn combat and interaction. This is just taking that idea and extending it, but not so far that you reach “use the stats of a bear for every monster” levels. The point is to save DMs time and frustration while making the campaign more about and accessible to the players. The fact that it makes a DM look like a genius because like he’s sufficiently prepared for anything and everything is a side benefit.

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Session Design Styles

I’ve been pretty head-down these last couple of weeks working on the last dungeon for the Zelda campaign. Final dungeons tend to be pretty serious, but I’m also trying to keep it from reading like a normal dungeon to keep with our campaign theme. It means I’ve had to work on a bunch of monsters, a bunch of puzzles, several bosses, an aesthetic to tie it all together, and the props and bits that go along with the above, all at once while balancing the difficulty level and pacing appropriately. It’s a lot of work, but it means I can pretty much coast from here until the end of the campaign because the hard work is already done.

I have noticed that my design this campaign is more rigid than I usually like. Part of that is using software; the more our gaming program handles, the more I have to build within that program and the less I can make up in the middle of a sentence. Part of that is this campaign in particular; it has to feel like a Zelda game, which means the maps have to be done before the players walk into the dungeon, and I can’t suddenly add a room that isn’t on the map the players have in their hand. Part of that is the final dungeon; the biggest dungeons so far have been four sessions long, but this one is somewhere between seven and ten, which means I have to have more done beforehand than usual. There’s one particular set piece that took a lot of time and effort, and I’m still not really done with setting it up, so if the players want to do that first I’ll subtly, then forcefully, nudge them in another direction.

All told, I feel like I’ve had a higher planning-to-content ratio than I normally do. I don’t think that’s actually true, because it’s more like flurries of planning followed by a few weeks of not doing a darn thing because it’s already built, but it feels that way.

But it at least got me thinking about rigid session design, which isn’t about inflexibility as much as…actually, I think it’s easiest to explain via a chart:

  • Standard Process: Roughly equal planning for the amount of content you get out of it. This is a broad area because it covers a broad array of styles. Most beginner DMs fall in the northernmost areas here, in the lands of “I have to plan every feat this monster has, because that’s how I do it when I’m a player.” They tend to drift farther south as they become comfortable with the system, acknowledge the needs of the table, and/or accept their own inherent laziness.
  • Loose Design: More content than planning. You’re putting in work, but leaving yourself some wiggle room to adjust things on the fly and make it seem like you planned more than you did.
  • Rigid Design: High planning, high to moderate content. You’re doing a lot of work, but you’re getting a lot out of it.
  • Improvisational: Low planning, moderate to high content. You have enough of a grasp on your game to wing it. The problem here is keeping things consistent; if that wizard knew teleport six sessions ago, he should probably still know it today.
  • Bad Process: Moderate to high planning, low content. If you’re spending a lot of time working on sessions and not getting a lot to show for it, something’s wrong. Either you’re working too hard on minutia because you want to get things unnecessarily perfect, or you’re working on things that don’t actually matter for your gaming table.
  • Faffing About: Low planning, low content. You’re not sure what you’re going to do, and you’re okay with that. This is very close to intentionally not planning at all.
  • Haha, what?: High planning, low content. You’re too caught up in things that don’t matter to the game, even if they matter to you. You’re mostly working on backstory, or building monsters that have a very small chance of appearing, or preparing a lot of individual things that you could be preparing as a group.

This may be best illustrated by an example. Say our example DM has multiple kingdoms the players can visit, each with a set of guards the party is likely to meet and/or fight:

  • Standard Process: The DM designs a single stat block. She ignore all racial abilities and cultural factors, though if a player asks she may decide the dwarves are using axes and adjust accordingly. What’s important is that she has a “guard” stat block.
  • Loose Design: The DM plans one stat block, but intentionally doesn’t select a weapon and a feat or two. She’ll decide those when the players arrive so she doesn’t have to plan stat blocks that don’t matter. She could also adjust the numbers for racial powers (giving the dwarves a few more hit points, giving the elves a +1 with their bows), but that’s optional.
  • Rigid Design: The DM plans one stat block for each set of guards, including their racial abilities. This leads her to interesting situations, like acknowledging that orc guards might favor the double-axe or that elves might prefer light armor, so every set of guards feels unique.
  • Improvisational: The DM has an idea of what the guards can do and knows what makes each race different, so she makes a quick note about the numbers for a generic guard instead of building it via class levels, feats, etc. She expects to fill in details on the fly when the players meet a guard. This leaves her the freedom to say “dwarves have higher accuracy and more hit points but lower damage” even if she doesn’t have rules or a build to back that up.
  • Bad Process: The DM figures out that a fifty-person guard should have twenty-five second-level fighters, thirteen fourth-level fighters, and so on. She builds a stat block for each level of guard, even though the players are very unlikely to fight or even meet the higher-ranking guards. Much of her work is irrelevant to the session.
  • Faffing About: Low planning, low content. The DM knows there are guards but not much else. She’ll figure out the rest if and when the players meet them, either by using a pre-built stat block or by making things up wholesale.
  • Haha, what?: High planning, low content. The DM designs custom weapons and armor for each set of guards, or does each guard’s stat blocks individually so they have distinct builds and personalities, or gets caught up in writing the history of the guard to explain where the organization is today. The great majority of her work is irrelevant to the coming session, and players are unlikely to ever encounter most of it.

I like running things improvisationally, though I know I can’t do it all the time and the players from my failed sandbox campaign will back me up on this. I also know it’s not for everyone. But I think loose session design is something everybody can do, and I’ll talk about that next post.

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Law A – Campaign Songs

I’ve talked about how I use music to help me flesh out story and character dies, but I haven’t shared what those ideas are. I think even my players don’t know a lot of the songs behind the campaigns unless I make them very explicit. But with all the work I’ve been doing on the Eight Arms wiki, I’ve considered how or whether to put those songs somewhere on there. As long as they’re on my mind it’s as good a time as any to list them.

In case you’re reading this on mobile and don’t feel like loading a million videos, the rest of the article is behind the link.

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