Gaming Thoughts - 2012 April 12
Triggering question: why is it that I want to check out Pathfinder?
What I know about Pathfinder is, in a nutshell, that it's the game D&D 4.0 should have been. It's staying faithful to the "O" in the OGL. It's building and exploring the core concepts of D&D rather than blowing them up and doing something different. As I have been heard to say before, I never bought D&D 4.0 because, on looking at it, it had finally ceased to be the game I grew up playing. Pathfinder is still that game... or so I've heard.
But so what? I have a lifelong love/hate relationship with D&D. I enjoy it for a while, and then get sick of it. When I get sick of it, I usually say I want something modern, or something not level-based, or just something... different. And I spend time doing something different, and enjoy myself, but pretty soon I hear myself say "when was the last time we did a plain old dungeon crawl?" And part of the answer is that I'm coming around to that point on the curve.
I'm not sure that's an adequate answer. I'm in law school for pity's sake... I don't have that much gaming time. I've got an every-other-Friday game going and a Thursday-night game about to start. 1.5 games per week is about all I can keep up with right now, so in order to work in a Pathfinder game I'd have to give something else up... and let's face it, checking out the system will lead inevitably to wanting to play.
Truth be told, there is something wanting in my Friday night game. The game feels good while I'm playing it, but lately I've noticed that I don't look forward to it the way I normally look forward to gaming. I find myself troubled by the game's intrusion on my schedule more often than my schedule's intrusion on the game. What's up with that?
First, identify the moving parts. There's me, the venue, the players, the system, the GM, and the game itself. What's driving my unease?
Is it me? Have I changed to a point that I don't look forward to gaming generally? I decline to believe it. I have been gaming for thirty years and it is one of the most reliable constants in my life. Even my gender has not been so stable. And I'm really looking forward to this new Thursday night game, so it's not that I'm incapable of looking forward to gaming - it's that, for some reason, I'm not looking forward to this Friday game. So scratch that one.
Is it the venue? I doube it. The venue is the lower floor of my house... it could not be more convenient. The players are not strangers. They are my friends, to one degree or another. All but one of them I have gamed with before and enjoyed gaming with; the one who is new to me is, as often as not, the highlight of the game for me. So scratch both of those.
Is it the system? I don't think so. The Friday game started out with new-WoD, and is currently in an old-WoD interlude. I've played both; I like both. I think the best imaginable World of Darkness game would use the new engine with the old setting, and I've heard some people are cooking on that idea. I'd love to see it. I'd love to play it. But that doesn't mean I'm dissatisfied with either system.
My better half is less happy with the new system, mainly because it comes hand-in-glove with the new setting, which she is unhappy about. In part our old-WoD interlude is an attempt to glue her back into the game. I think her distance from the game might have something to do with my discomfort level, but I don't think that's all of it. I have to own my own discomfort. I don't get a different feeling when she joins in than when she doesn't, so that's just not it.
What about the GM? Again, I have played in games run by this GM before. I know her style. It's light on combat, but generally pretty solid in the roleplay and problem-solving; more to the point, she tends to favor the game over the rules, which means a clever idea from a player will often fly as long as it makes aa good story. I profess to like that, so the GM shouldn't be the issue... but even as I say that, I note the qualification in my voice. Maybe what I profess to like and what I actually like are not quite the same. Let's hold that thought.
That leaves the game itself... and the game is exemplary of this GM's style, so these two flow together. I'm playing a Corax surrounded by, and working with, vampires... a fish out of water, who needs to be roleplayed into trusting the other characters rather than being either obligated or naturally inclined to do so. I was in the same boat in the new-WoD phase of the game - the sole vampire, in that instance, surrounded by shifters. Some of this was by choice; some was by happenstance. The bottom line should please me, because negotiating a relationship with the other PCs is classic roleplaying. But I think it's an element that's leaving me flat, and that makes it a piece of the puzzle.
Both of my characters are minimally competent combatants with a lot of non-combat frills... which brings me back to the GM's minimalist approach to combat. We've talked about it before; combat is not her favorite mode of play. This isn't a surprise to me; most of her gaming time is in LARP, which is a thing I've tried and ultimately rejected. The live-action is, for me, as much a barrier to immersion as an aid thereto... and nowhere is this more evident than in combat scenes.
It all keeps coming back to the combat/roleplay balance, and that's the point where I want to bring the original question back up. Why is it I want to check out Pathfinder? Why do I keep coming back to D&D?
When I get sick of D&D, I say the same things every time. It's unrealistic. Level-based character development just feels phony somehow. So much of the book is filled with rules about the high-level abilities of high-level characters that, in a nutshell, never get played - and when they do, the unrealistic aspects of the game rise to the forefront.
(Have you ever noticed that, at sufficiently high levels, armor becomes completely irrelevant? Do the math. The highest possible armor class, at extremely high levels, is not enough to force a warrior of the same level to actually roll to hit... at least on the first shot. More to the point, for every kind of actual armor in the book, each point of protection costs a point of allowable Dexterity bonus, so all armor is ultimately the same. From the standpoint of believability, this is a flaw.)
That said, at low levels - say, 1-10 or so - the unrealistic issues are less pronounced; characters have less of a chance to min-max into extreme configurations, and the game's flaws move to the horizon. (Returning to the example, at low levels, no one has a sufficiently high attack bonus or dexterity bonus to entirely eliminate the advantage of armor, nor enough wealth to acquire every available magical boost. At low levels, armor matters a great deal.)
And at least in my experience, the really great D&D games have been at low levels. By the time I've leveled a character from 1 to 10, I feel like they've lived. They've made it. I'm ready to do someone new. I can put aside the books full of high-level content and go back and play a new lowbie... because at low-levels, that system just flat works despite all its flaws. It's no surprise; D&D was originally released by TSR. Tactical Studies Rules. It evolved, literally, from a military experimental system for studying tactical combat.
The beating heart of D&D is its combat system. A D&D character is measured, first to last, by what it can do in combat; everything else is roleplaying frills. Roleplaying makes it fun, just like frosting makes a cake worth eating... but if you just eat frosting, pretty soon, you get sick of it. I think that's why my Friday game is leaving me flat, and I'm absolutely certain that that's why I want to check out Pathfinder.
[edit 4/25/12: fixed tags]