Pathfinder society: Testing the waters

28 June, 2009 at 1:47 pm (actual play) (, , )

I played a game of Pathfinder society (which still used rules of D&D 3,5). Jukka Särkijärvi was the GM. Players were me, Gastogh, Veltzeh and one other person whom I had not met before.

I’ll start with observations on the scenario, local playing style and general anthropology. There’ll be some mild spoilers. For context: I’ve game mastered a fair deal of third edition and played it maybe thrice, but it’s been a while.

I created a first level character (halberdier with some talent in tripping people and making showy entrances). Other characters were a paladin of first level, and a druid and monk of higher level (2 or 3). I entered not knowing anything about the local play culture with regards to, say, optimisation; I just relied on the fact that if you create a third edition character and don’t try anything fancy it will usually work out okay, which it did.

First difference to my usual play was fiddling with all the equipment; not very interesting, IMO. Ready-made packages of standard equipment would be useful and make character generation significantly faster.

My character done and we were slowly starting to play, so I naturally asked what they were playing. Responses were roughly race (if not human), class, ad maybe somethig else. I have very fuzzy conceptions of what the character looked like, except for Veltzeh’s char of whom we had a picture. I did not talk much about my character, either, as it evidently was not the way things were done thereabouts.

The scenario itself worked as follows: The big Pathfinder organisation gives a job and some goals to achieve and then factions give a sidequest each for their members (each character being a member of one faction, I think). There’s also secrecy about the faction goals, which does deter the party hydra phenomenon a bit, but does not create compelling narrative as characters are not allowed to mess with each others’ subgoals, much less fight each other. (The party hydra phenomenon is when all characters act and work as though they were the the heads of a hydra, always having the same goals and wanting the same things.)

My sidequest was to talk to a specific person and do it out of hearing of other PCs (including the elven druid with quite keen hearing, which was conveniently forgotten or ignored in play). I had no idea if I had to actually drive gameplay towards achieving this goal or if I could just loiter along and the prestige award (which one gets for completing faction sidequests) would come for free. Proactivity would have been awfully risky, so I just went along and the prestige award was waiting along the rails. Had I been playing some other (the temptation to write “proper” is strong) roleplaying game, I would have actively reached for the goal and created all sorts of amusing situations, but it did not feel the right thing to do in a D&D game, where the mentality is very much that of players and characters trying to beat the scenario and players guarding their characters from permanent harm.

The scenario was very much a railroad; walk along this path, kill zombies and cultists and priest/priestesses, talk a bit every now and then. The fights were the most interesting part of it all. At the end we destroyed (probably had to destroy) an ages-old artifect, but it had no impact, because we did not see any alteratives. Genre-wise it was D&D fantasy, though the world could easily support sword and sorcery play, too. I don’t think Pathfinder society can, however, due to the inherent limitations of the format.

Jukka (the GM) made a point of describing attacks, hits and misses, for which I respect him. However, they don’t have any further effect on play; not mechanical, not anything else, at least most of the time. The descriptions hence are superfluous, sort of. As a design issue the indie designer Vincent Baker has been thik about something similar: If you can simply say what you are about to do (Attack the zombie) and the roll the dice, hence creating the effect (damaged / falls / miss), the actual details of how the effects come by is extra. It can be skipped. Hence it is very easy to skip. I’d go as far as to say that this is a design flaw in D&D.

All that said, I did enjoy the game and felt relaxed and in a friendly environment. The social dimension and jokes were more important than the game proper, though the game did inform said interaction and gave it structure, as well as killing random potentially awkward silences. There were tactically convenient boxes (one can climb on top of them and use them as cover), priestesses with minion masks that obscured their features and other such amusities (that should be a word if it is not). Jukka, BTW: If negative energy is inherently evil, why are spells using it not so?

I do recommend Pathfinder Society to people who like third edition. From talk at the table I got the impression that the quality and style of the scenarios varies greatly. Great variance between the assumptions of scenarios might make the play less pleasant, as one would have to adjust to fit the given scenario and hope one guesses right. I don’t know if such variance exists. I also don’t know if it bother most players. I just like knowing how I should play in a particular game so as to not be disruptive and to also enjoy the play.

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Links: Design and gaming histories

24 June, 2009 at 8:43 pm (game design)

The fairly new blogger zzarchov raises several issues over at Unofficial games; his solutions may not be the best (I tend to prefer less rules-intensive ones) and issues are not relevant to all playing styles, but they are generally worth thinking about. There are free games available at the related website. I haven’t looked at the games yet, mostly due to lack of time and one being in a .exe format and hence requiring WINE to work, given my free operating system.

I wrote a post about using some skills explicitly for setting scenes. The Dane (I think) Morten Greiss responded in his native language; those of us not fluent must resort to butchering it with poor translations, alas. The key points do come through. Morten’s idea is that any skill can be used in starting conflicts, but then the same skill can’t be used to resolve the conflict it started. I think it is pretty excellent an idea. Also, in the comments there’s talk about running freeform and more scripted games using this technique.

Olorin posted his roleplaying history and linked to the other Finnish ones we’ve seen thus far. Further, there’s meta-edition wars! That is, Olorin explaining why all the edition warriors are fucking idiots (there’s bit of depth there).

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Interstellar communication

23 June, 2009 at 5:47 pm (roleplaying)

I might be running a scifi game some time soon. Aesthetic inspiration: Alien(s)-movies and Terran (meaning humans) in Starcraft. The idea is to make most of technology plausible by current standards; that is, works with logic acceptable by modern humans, but may be significantly more effective.

I don’t intend to engage in any sort of science or technology fetishism, but one little thing has the power to shape societies and gameplay alike, so I’m going to worry a bit about it. That one thing is communication.

So, assuming technology that is plausible by modern standards and some way of taking people to other stars and keeping the people mostly alive in the process by some means (such as self-sufficient spaceships or handwavy stasis; more ideas welcome), how might communication work between different solar systems? How fast and how reliable could it be?

I’m somewhat at a loss here, not being a huge scifi reader or fan. On that note, can anyone recommend some scifi literature with suitable tone? (Other media might work, also, but is likely to be less useful to me.)

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Skills: tool for setting scenes

17 June, 2009 at 6:07 pm (game design) (, , )

Bruce posted about situation generation and the difficulties inherent in it, as well as a possible solution for those difficulties. It is a post well worth reading, so I won’t explain the contents of it here.

It reminded me of an idea I had once mentioned to a local friend: Some skills are used in conflicts (mainly to solve them), while others are used to gather information or find something; generally to set a scene. This divide is of course informal and not all skills fit in one category or the other.

What would happen if the divide was made explicit? Some skills are clearly in one category or other, but let us arbitrary divide the borderline cases to the two categories also (dice can be used in the process). Now players whose characters have lots of conflict-level skills will tend to do well once things get nasty, while those with more scene-setting skills can decide which conflicts, and which sorts of conflicts, to get involved in. Utter specialisation is for insects, in this case, and for only marginally functional characters.

There are other effects. Some skills simply can’t be used to set up scenes. If, say, sneaking is such a skill, then it must be used in conflicts. Hide and seek is only the last resort, used when the plan proper goes awry. In similar way, maybe riding can only be used to set scenes. You ride to get around, not to skewer people with a lance.

It does not need to be quite that straightforward. How about a game where fighting can only be used to set scenes, not resolve them? You assault an invading army not to defeat them by fighting but rather to reach their leader; succeed and you do so in a swathe of blood, fail and you are forced to kneel, bound and beaten, when the actual conflict starts. It might take the shape of rousing speech, insults, a touching performance, something arcane, or maybe a contest of riddles. Maybe a contest to have the black-clad evil one see how wrong his deeds are and to turn against his even more evil master.

Conclusion being that drawing an absolute and explicit line between skills that can be only used in conflicts or only used to set up scenes one can alter the gameplay significantly.

Certainly there is more to do. Maybe making this divide is a group process, much like group character creation. “Everyone select two skills that you want to be used in dramatic situations.” Maybe the line is drawn in different places for different characters, hence creating clear niche protection and probably other interesting effects. Might be especially interesting in a PvP environment: Everyone maneuvers to encounter the other in a situation most advantageous to oneself.

There is more still. How are scene-setting skills used? Maybe in the process of free play when someone notices there is an opportunity for their use. Maybe go around the table clockwise, everyone having a scene in order and setting it up with some skill along the way. (Being involved in scenes started by others is smart.)

There’s a game to be designed lurking in these ideas, I think.

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Edition and playstyle wars

6 June, 2009 at 11:24 am (linkedin, rpg theory) ()

Mostly inspired by Donny the DM’s posts, namely this and this, the first of which was shared by Jonathan Jacobs of forthcoming Nevermet press on Google Reader.

Donny somewhat mischaracerises the extremes of sandbox play, also misuses GNS and makes a number of assumptions, but I thought it would be nice to engage his actual point, too.

I hope I am not misrepresenting Donny too severely. By my understanding Donny’s point is, to steal a term from another field, ecumenical. Donny wants to say that old school and 4e play are not that different after all. Donny’s argument is that since ridiculously extreme sandbox play and ridiculously extreme railroading don’t really work, everyone must actually play in the middle ground and hence in pretty similar way.

There is a number of weaknesses on the argument in addition to misrepresenting railroading. Donny is pretty focused on D&D and it shows. D&D assumes lots of combat. Donny’s argument also assumes lots of combat. Further, not all ways of playing map meaningfully to the railroading-sandbox axis. My normal style of game mastering is story-focused but I don’t plan ahead and hence can’t railroad; there is no point in mapping this to the railroad-sandbox axis. This is not a big problem as one can fabricate a ridiculously extreme version of my style, too, and use argument similar to what Donny used. I will assume that this applies to all possible ways of playing.

The key claim remains: Since all extremes are implausible, all styles of play must be pretty close to each other and fundamentally similar. My perspective is that the claim is too ecumenical, but still has a kernel of truth hidden in it.

First the true part: Certainly, all of roleplaying shares many similarities. Certainly different play traditions have much to learn from each other. I mix and match techniques from old school play and indie games. Philippe, a 4e afficiando if there ever was one, experiments with random encounters. 4e with the focus on encounters has something to teach if one is willing to look carefully, but they really ought to read and play some indie games so as to get a handle of skill challenges, which are a pretty blunt instrument. More importantly: It is possible to enjoy playing in styles that are not one’s favourite, as long as one is willing to approach them with open mind. (Also, having less edition wars would be nice.)

Nevertheless, people play in different ways. I hear some even like railroading and pre-plotted adventures! Hard to accept, but true. The differences are real. Some styles of play demand very much a different perspective for them to be enjoyed. Donny himself illustrates this by the following comments:

As to gathering information. <snip> You either railroad them (just have someone spill their guts as to where you want them to go), or you sandbox them (roll on the random rumor table and they go in the direction the dice tell them to – stomping off blindly indeed :)

No, you do neither of those. You give them the information that they could gather, maybe influenced by dice rolls. Maybe it guides to some interesting adventurous location that you have designed and placed somewhere, but not because you want the player characters to go there, but because you want to present going there as an option. When designing the sandbox, you place a bunch of interesting locations there and create a bunch of interesting random encounters, because you want to know what the players will do to them. In play you don’t guide them around; their characters are an adventurous bunch or so involved in the situation that they will certainly undertake some interesting project or stumble upon something interesting.

That is; instead of director who has a story to tell or encounters to guide the players through, the GM thinks of himself (or herself) as an arbitrator who can’t wait to see what the players do with his sandbox. A different frame of mind. Certainly one can mix and match, for example by creating a sandbox with very strong theme or by creating an adventure with many genuine choices that take it to different directions. Regardless, the extreme but playable cases are pretty far from each other.

As a conclusion I say that those weirdos over there do play in genuinely different way, but once you accept that the difference exists, you just might be able to enjoy their activity, too. Or maybe not. But at the very least you would be likely to learn a bit and get a new experience. Celebrate the difference.

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Variant classes for 3rd edition of D&D

4 June, 2009 at 6:17 pm (roleplaying-games) (, )

Back when I was just getting fed up with D&D I found an interesting set of variant character classes as designed mostly by one poster called Szatany at WotC’s forums. Luckily, the good folk of Campaign builders’ guild have saved them over at their wiki: http://www.thecbg.org/wiki/index.php?title=Ultimate_Classes

I particularly recommend the barbarian. Adventurer is boring. Don’t start by reading it. The classes are probably for edition 3.5, but that doesn’t really matter. I know next to nothing about Pathfinder, but it is supposed to be backwards compatible.

The classes are notable because they embody what is maybe the greatest strength of 3e: One can take just about any ability in the fiction and come up with an interesting representation for it in the mechanics. (Just be careful with the social stuff.) One implication is that they are pretty good inspiration even if one does not play relevant editions of D&D, as long as one is literate in d20.

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