Saturday, July 11, 2015

Thinking about Pathfinder: Specific vs Flexible

Among the swag my kids and I picked up at this year's Free RPG Day was the Pathfinder offering We Be Goblins Free.

Just like last year's mummy-themed Pathfinder freebie, the production values were just staggering.
The artwork is copious, full color, and always on-theme.  The maps are easy to read and the glossy paper stock is durable, thick, and feels good to the hand -- I swear the pages are every bit as thick as the pages of a National Geographic -- nothing like the Time Magazine-thin pages of the D&D 5th edition Starter Set (my main grievance with that otherwise fine product).

However, it seems like many (most?) of those beautiful pages were dedicated to half-page + stat blocks.

It's that level of Specificity which seems to be both the strength and weakness of the Pathfinder / D&D edition 3.5 system.

The rules allow (even encourage) extremely refined differentiation and specialization ("I want a hill-gnome from a tribal, wilderness culture who learned seamanship when take from his homeland by slavers and a little about skulduggery when, prior to his escape, he was sold to a crimelord as a domestic servant.").  Pathfinder can build that sort of character with great specificity and you can see in the game mechanics where each piece of the character's background fits in and influences any given encounter.


On the other hand, I can bring the same character to life with the B/X D&D boxed set my brother bought in 1980 (I'd just call it a "halfling").

Complexity and Specificity pull against Simplicity and Flexibility.

Here's where it makes the difference:

If, when writing my adventure notes, I anticipated that my players might infiltrate an urban crimelord's palace by sneaking in on a supply wagon, disguising themselves as domestic servants, or climbing the walls ... and I've prepared milieu appropriate challenges for each of these routes, how quickly and smoothly can I respond when my players instead become dead-set on using the sewers to infiltrate the palace from below?

Here's where flexibility and simplicity are my allies -- encounter charts that feature traps and critters that can be described as easily as "2 fire beetles AC 4, 8 hp, bite 2-8."


Compare that to the following Pathfinder-ized rendition:

Beetle, FireCR 1/3
XP 135
N Small vermin
 +0; Senses low-light vision; Perception +0
AC 12, touch 11, flat-footed 12 (+1 natural, +1 size)
 4 (1d8)
 +2, Ref +0, Will +0
 mind-affecting effects
Speed 30 ft., fly 30 ft. (poor)
 bite +1 (1d4)
Str 10, Dex 11, Con 11, Int —, Wis 10, Cha 7
 Atk +0; CMB –1; CMD 9 (17 vs. trip)
 Fly –2

Luminescence (Ex)

A fire beetle's glowing glands provide light in a 10-foot radius. A dead fire beetle's luminescent glands continue to glow for 1d6 days after its death.

None of that is impenetrable ... but it is quite a bit to filter through.  

Now of course one way to resolve the tension between Complexity and Flexibility is memorization.  

When playing Monopoly we don't look up how many dice to roll for movement each turn, we just remember.  That rapid, mental access pulls us back to the center, where rapid improvisation is feasible.

So the question is:

"Am I willing to invest the time and focus necessary to master Pathfinder's Core Rulebook (576 pages) or Advanced Player's Guide (320 pages)?"

I guess, these days, the answer is, "no."

My days on the earth are measured and often other people have first claim on my time, so I'd rather stick to where I have gaming "muscle memory."

Roll the clock back to 1984 when, during summer, once the grass was cut, beans picked and snapped, and the floor vacuumed, I had seven free hours with nothing on TV but daytime soap operas.  In that situation, the complexity and depth offered by all those pages would be a blessing -- an invigorating and imaginative refuge from boredom.

So Pathfinder's big, bold, beautifully produced books make sense and I can understand why, when during a recent but rare visit to Books-a-Million, when my wife directed me to the gaming section, 80% of what was on the shelf was Pathfinder.

I'm glad that people have the time and interest to immerse themselves that deeply and develop the eye-blink speed with such complex rules -- to really dive deeply, but I think my place will be to look on from the shallows and wish them well.

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