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.