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.



  1. NiTessine said,

    Yeah, it’d be much more fun if players were allowed to mess with each others’ faction goals. I’d draw the line at doing lethal damage to your companions. I’d also make it so that completing the Society-set goal would also net you a reward of some sort. Since you can’t accomplish that solo, you couldn’t mess around with your party members too much.

    Back in Living Greyhawk, we had several modules and even longer plot arcs that encouraged intra-party conflict, which produced some great gaming.

    I think that as railroads go, the module was better than most, though the method of sealing off the adventure location was mildly contrived. You really had no option but to do what you did, but it made perfect sense in the context of the setting and the adventure. The module – and PFS modules in general – could’ve used some actually meaningful choices in there, though.

    Both the boxes and the minion masks were my own invention, by the way.

    I was a bit off my game yesterday, actually. I usually run a better game. Dunno why.

    The roleplaying thing is interesting. For some reason or other, the Tampere PFS group is very light on roleplaying. It’s probably at least partly because of me and the way I run organised play modules, but it’s also in the players. In the Helsinki group, people roleplay more. I didn’t actually notice the difference before Navdi mentioned it when he was a visiting guest DM at Tampere last month.

    The factions and their quests aren’t defined very well in the campaign, and sadly, in some modules they feel like they were tacked on as an afterthought, or offer only one way of accomplishing them. Yesterday’s module had a few examples of the latter.

    The campaign, like I’ve mentioned often, is very good for popcorn gaming – crack jokes, eat chips and kill an orc every now and then. Low threshold for participation, but not much in the way of larger-than-life roleplaying moments.

    As for negative energy… beats me, really. I think they should be. I suppose you could argue that it’s about how the spell uses the energy, or in what amounts. As good-aligned ghosts and archliches and whatnot demonstrate, the evil of the energy can be suppressed.

  2. News Update « Worlds in a Handful of Dice said,

    […] Tampere and had the occasion to run Pathfinder Society for Thanuir of Cogito, ergo ludo. He posted his feelings about the adventure and the campaign to his blog. It’s interesting to read players’ […]

  3. gastogh said,

    About the faction quests; yeah, they often leave an impression of designers not really seeming to have cared about that, and having filled in the miniquests as an afterthought. For example, in one scenario some faction wanted to find some letter sent to X. The first thing the party encounters on the way to the local dungeon is a petrified mailman with a non-petrified mailbag. Guess what happens?
    And a second faction’s quest was to make sure that the letter is found by the first faction. Duh.
    Then last session there was the “let’s throw some bribes around in the middle of these zombie guts” which I pretty much failed to get my mind around.

    Then again, I’ve had to talk a dragon into giving away its treasure. Did it, too. \o/

    The faction quests do have the potential for friction; I once had to procure some evidence in the form of a letter of the depravities of someone and then dispose of it. Someone from a different faction would’ve totally pawned the letter if I hadn’t gotten to it first, and wanted to do it regardless. I never did find out as I forgot to ask exactly what it was he needed to do since he did manage to complete his quest in the end as well.

  4. NiTessine said,

    I believe in that particular instance the other guy was supposed to get proof that fiends had been summoned in the area. However, it hadn’t been expressed very clearly and the player had some latitude in how to interpret it, which can lead to conflicting faction goals. It’s the only time I’ve seen this happen.

    One I played last week actually had a couple of really cool faction quests of the sort that makes paladins need to atone. Our group’s paladin actually subcontracted his faction quest to my character!

  5. Veltzeh said,

    Huh, inter-party conflicts. Role-playing tends to primarily come from those as far as I’ve understood. In the many games I’ve played that had such conflict, it was often too intense for me to handle and though it was sometimes entertaining to follow and sometimes not, I couldn’t really take part in them. Whenever I did, I ended up wishing that had I done it differently, the outcome would’ve been cooler and much more in-character.
    It was also a point that these games were D&D and my characters were always the poorest of them all because I didn’t want/care to optimize, and thus didn’t want to provoke enough conflict for it to become an actual fight. Unsurprisingly, I then learned to make characters who could flee really effectively. This usually involved huge fly speeds or Hide in Plain Sight. Also, my own personality is a very conflict-resolving one, which doesn’t really help.

    In a recent The Shadow of Yesterday campaign I’ve been playing in, I’ve tried to role-play better, bolder and more. I don’t know how well that’s gone, since I haven’t role-played with the other players before. I imagine that my role-playing has been at least a little better with TSOY than with D&D. I think a certain game system encourages playing in a certain style, but I don’t think it restricts it that much.
    A bigger restriction for me is the other players. If the others role-play, I tend to follow the example, unless I’m really afraid. (Social situations in general scare me because I suck at them, which is nothing new.)

    And now for something completely different. Sorry about the nitpick, but I’d appreciate if you used gender-neutral pronouns of me. Yes, I completely accept being referred to as “it”.

    • Tommi said,

      And now for something completely different. Sorry about the nitpick, but I’d appreciate if you used gender-neutral pronouns of me. Yes, I completely accept being referred to as “it”.


  6. Tommi said,

    On conflict between player characters: I can see it working in Finland where the number of players is reasonable and people basically learn to know each other to some extent after a game or two, so there is fairly little play with strangers. I can also see it potentially leading to huge dysfunction in, say, a large con in USA where players don’t know each other at all. Ambiguity would be the worst situation, IMO. I’d probably add a paragraph about ignoring or softening the limits, as long as it is done explicitly at the table with agreement of all participants.

    In general, though, I don’t think D&D is very good game for player character versus player character action. There’s very little in the way of non-lethal resolution systems that can affect player characters, so if negotiation is not sufficient, escalating the conflict to fighting is very natural. There are other reasons. I could write much about this. (I just might, having a blog and all.)

    On the railroad: To me, it does not really matter how contrived or non-contrived the situation is. As far as I’m concerned we could make a meta-game deal about not leaving the place and it would not bother me one bit. The lack of meaningful choices is what characterises railroading, not the quality of obfuscation. In fact, as a player, I am okay with railroading. I did not expect meaningful choices (and hence, meaningful roleplay) from the game. Railroading only bother me when it is not clear and someone at least tries to convince me that I can make meaningful choices and then nullifies them. That’s dishonest and likely to provoke ranting or at least kill the game completely for me.

    I’ll write more about roleplaying later.

  7. NiTessine said,

    Eh. Characters can deal nonlethal damage to each other. However, directly attacking another character is only of any use if you stand to gain something, and it doesn’t really fit the cloak-and-dagger proceedings of the faction war in the Society. It’s crude.

    In Living Greyhawk, there was a module series where nearly every module ended with everyone doublecrossing the rest of the party to secure the macguffin for their employers, and never required an attack roll. The Tale of Avrian and Gardakan in here is from one of those modules and one of the greatest examples of in-game subterfuge that I’ve seen:

    I think as long as actually killing other party members remains verboten and there is some incentive to leaving them still standing – such as that Society reward at the end – it could work.

  8. Tommi said,

    On roleplaying: Discussing roleplaying with roleplayers is hard the term is generally ill-defined. Hence: By roleplaying I mean revealing character in play (to oneself and the other players and the GM). Inter-character banter or taking ranks of knowledge (nobility) or using a halberd are not, as far as I am concerned, roleplaying to any greater degree than simply participating is.

    I had roughly one such moment in the game: That of being in low hit points and having to decide if I was going to attack the zombies slaying bystanders (one of whom obviously was the man I was supposed to talk to; it was obvious as soon as the situation was described). My call was to not charge in. All other choices were either obvious, tactical, or not there.

    If we simply had been sent there to find out about the artifact and we could have left after killing the BBEG, the artifact would have presented a choice. Not very relevant to my character, but still. There are of course also the obvious ways of adding choices: Loot that is obviously guarded, NPCs taking hostages, NPCs surrendering, loot versus save innocents, so on. Also, the faction goals could be used to good effect; namely, faction goals asks something nasty or uncomfortable. There is also the downright revolutionary concept of not making the adventure a railroad; at least some branches would help.

    So: Roleplaying happens when characters are put into situations where there does not exist an obvious right action. It can be a dilemma (which often seem and are contrived), or somewhat open-ended situation. Some of them could be trade-offs where players can take extra risks to get extra rewards; something that would only help the experience as a whole, especially if same adventure might be run for 1st level or 3rd level party.

    There are other ways of encouraging roleplay (as I’ve defined it): Adding NPCs who meaningfully interact with the player characters is one age-old trick. The start of the adventure sort of revealed character, though it was mostly handwaved.

    In summary: In the adventure in question there was preciously little to encourage any roleplay. The format, though restrictive, does not close down all such avenues.

    One way of encouraging revealing character is rewarding people for it. See, for example, tSoY and Burning Wheel and their ilk. That’s not really an option with D&D sans houserules, however.

    I forgot subdual damage. Now I’m feeling dumb. Yeah, it is a way, though a restricted one (mages do not appreciate,for one, if they were dumb enough to not learn their enchantments properly).

    (I’ll blithely be ignoring alignment of undead and negative energy from now on.)

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