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 through 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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4 Responses to On Pathfinder

  1. Blake says:

    I think the system itself is less at fault than you may have estimated. I think the Magic analogy goes deeper than you know. Magic -as played by MOST people who play it- is not the same game as what gets played at tournaments and in game stores. But when you put a lot of people gamers in one place, the particular mental illnesses of our community give rise to the same societal problems over and over. (Competition, optimization, judgementalism, exclusionism) These are qualities of gamers, not any particular game. Though you’re right that PF management makes no effort to discourage this and that does accelerate the decline.

  2. DMiba says:

    Hey man!

    I ocasionally read your blog and I have to say this post striked me hard, because I agree with you entirely. I strongly believe that we, as dungeon masters, have a mission to make an adventure actually look likable and it can be quite the task to satisfy all players, so I end up quite disappointed when I see my group of players only thinking about numbers and ways to be overpowered. Whats the fun in that?? So I made a house rule, I premiate those who make nice backgrounds and play with fun characters. I also made a campaign setting low on magic to be more believable.

    Just wanted to give you my support. We arent many out there, doing it for the story instead of the numbers. Cheers man.

  3. Space_Titanium says:

    I’ve also been feeling the same frustration with Pathfinder for several months now. It struck me hard when, for a variety of reasons, I turned to Pathfinder Society to get back into the hobby. I tried leading a store as a GM for several months and grew increasingly frustrated with the my inability provide a meaningful challenge to the players at the table (read: they steamrolled every scenario). New players would be “coached” into optimizing their characters, creating an environment where independent builds were met with disappointment and resentment. I can’t fault the players for thinking that way, given that character death is a very real punishment in public play organizations, but my frustration with what I saw happening catalyze do my decision to find better things to do with my personal time.

    The problem is, in the home games I’ve joined/run I see the same thing happening over and over again. Our parties are rarely designed with teamwork in mind, players preferring to make characters that bring as much damage to the table as possible. In fact, the least meta-concerned group I’ve played with was heavily affected by the Advanced Class Guide, with virtually everyone switching over to Dex-based builds given the plethora of new abilities that allowed the stat to be applied to damage. These are not players that go looking for ways to optimize their characters, but the lure of maximizing their damage using what I interpret as the most powerful stat in the game was a siren song they couldn’t resist.

    To provide another example, our latest campaign is one more focused on intrigue and social interaction than on combat, something the group was made well aware of prior to the campaign. Naturally, the players largely ignored the change in focus, proving unwilling to abandon their raw damage output even when combat is typically avoided by the party. It’s hard to imagine, but this conflict between character builds and campaign goals has negatively affected everyone’s enjoyment of the campaign. There’s no one in our group that’s ultimately at fault: combat is a core value of Pathfinder and one that keeps getting reinforced with every book they publish. It’s just not a value I appreciate to the exclusion of all others anymore.

    Luckily I’ve found another group of players willing to try other game systems, something I’ve been having a great deal of fun with. My ultimate hope is to convince the other groups I play with to try those other systems and take some of the emphasis away from intricate combat. I think my most power-gaming player put it best last night when I expressed my frustration with the latest Pathfinder releases:

    “Yeah, I agree. I’d much rather they focus on making the core classes fun than on making new classes to replace them.”

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