Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Pathfinding the shark

Last week I was talking with a friend and we agreed that whatever complaints we had about D&D (3.x/Pathfinder, what we play) were mostly a matter of aesthetics. That is to say, the game is fine, but its ingrained assumptions just don't always match my/our expectations of dungeon-fantasy (to set it apart from the many other types of fantasy).

Hell, I can't even agree with myself on these matters sometimes. I've said before that the kind of dungeon-fantasy games I'd like to run are not the same as the kind of dungeon-fantasy games I'd like to play. Point is: sometimes the rules you're using don't support your aesthetic preferences (creative agenda w/e), that doesn't mean there's something wrong with the rules.

But that's not the whole picture. I do think there are things wrong with "the rules". Not so much with the core texts but what gets slapped on afterwards. What exactly do "the rules" consist of? Where's the line? This isn't really about that.

When our group "came back" to D&D, we came back because of Pathfinder. It felt refreshing, here you had all your base races and classes as we knew them from 3.x, but given a fresh paintjob. It was old and new at the same time. Some things were fixed, made better (simpler skill rank system, the "dead" level advancements were filled...) some things were changed, for better or worse, some things were left pretty much exactly the same.

The apparent mission statement was that this ensured a continued support of the 3.x line. This made a bunch of people happy, mostly people who had been disenchanted by 4E and driven away by the missteps in in WotC's marketing (who were basically saying "your old game is stupid, buy 4E it's how you should have fun" at the time, ouch). I applauded this move from Paizo myself, for various reasons. But as time went on, certain things began to happen...

The first sign (that I didn't really pick up at the time) were numerous threads on the internet along the lines of "Do you think Paizo changed enough or not?". Looking back on those conversations, I now see a certain subtle split in the Pathfinder player base. A lot of them were people who (consciously or not) thought D&D did need a new edition, but 4E wasn't the one they wanted. The rest were people who were completely fine with 3.x as-is. The former said Paizo didn't change nearly enough, the later said it was pretty much as good as it can get.

So why does a game ever need a new edition? It's not exactly like we have to upgrade our graphics cards or anything, if the rules work fine, what's to update? Why does Hollywood make sequels? Why do videogame companies make a new version of the same game each year? To make money. I'm not going to moralize. Once you get above the level of the indie scene, the RPG industry is a business, and as such it must make money. It's fun to bash the evil money-grubbing corporate liches at WotC, but I mean, come on.

You could argue that the guys at Paizo realized there was a very profitable niche to fill and jumped right in, but who cares. I want to look at it from a different angle. If Pathfinder was really the "same old" (That sounded much truer than the "Zee game will remain zee same." motto addopted by WotC at the time of 4E's release.), why was it such a big success? I mean, here was the game we were already playing, right? Everyone was grumbling when WotC made us buy 3.5 and yet people were doing it again. Why?

Pathfinder's trick was that it offered a fresh start with a game you loved. It's like when you get in a messy relationship and someone at some point says: "Let's forget anything bad happened between us. Let's try again." How romantic.

The thing with messy relationships is that, just like any neurotic pattern, they tend to repeat over and over. You try to work with a clean slate, but then they do or say something and you get that sinking feeling in your stomach and you know it's all coming back.

I think a recent announcement from Paizo gave a lot of people just that feeling.
I'll get back to that in a moment.

There was some quizzing months ago whether Paizo would eventually move on to Pathfinder 2. The developers denied it adamantly. A new edition was nowhere on their schedule for the next ten years (it still isn't as far as I can guess). It makes complete sense. This really wasn't some new game brand at all.

Just like the Old School Renaissance has (largely) dedicated itself to reconstructing exactly the kind of game and gaming that went on in the 70's (Swords & Wizardry, Labyrinth Lord, et al.), Pathfinder was a "reconstruction" of D&D 3rd edition, a preservation. Its intention was not growing D&D in a different direction, its intention was to keep it exactly the same (with minor facelifting).

Just like the OSR, Pathfinder spoke to a nostalgia in many of us. It re-enacted the halcyon days of holding the 3E books for the first time back in high school. The bad stuff was forgotten. But what was the bad stuff? The seemingly endless stream of supplements and splatbooks, both official and unofficial, that ultimately led to horrible bullshit such as this (and that's not even the worst of it).

The more bits and bolts you added, the more options and variants you introduced, the more unstable and unwieldy the game got, until it resembled some sewn-together corpse, a grotesque monstrosity built out of feats and prestige classes. The make-up only made the cracks at the heart of it more apparent. Things interacted in weird and unexpected ways, designers just kept on throwing stuff onto the pile, seemingly without much concern as to how the game was actually played or how things worked. Don't get me wrong, more options are always good, but there's a difference between a palette of options and a garbage dump. At start I devoured all that new stuff, obviously, but later on...

That and a combination of other factors drove a lot of people, including me, away from the game. We broke up and were looking for a new relationship. When 4E didn't turn out to be everyone's dream girl, Pathfinder came along and promised it would be all good again. And it was.

But as I said before, if the OSR is dedicated to replicating the 70's Pathfinder is dedicated to keeping 3.x as it was... For a while only the core book existed and that was cool, it still had some issues but nothing you couldn't close an eye to. Then the Advanced book came out and it was pretty darn good in many aspects. Several of the classes actually felt well though-out and were different enough to give actual options. Then the Bestiary 2 came out - I prefer to make my own monsters, but more critters is always cool I guess. Then they announced the Ultimate Magic book. I was a bit sceptical but the new class it included, the Magus (basically a wizard with a sword) was cool looking and seems mechanically sound.

And then they released the playtest for the upcoming Ultimate Combat book. Inexplicably, this was the straw that broke the camel's back for many people. It might sound absurd and it certainly seems like an overreaction, but I believe it's that sinking feeling in their guts that people got.

A lot of people expressed their opinion that Paizo is jumping the shark with this one. It's too early to tell in my opinion, but it feels right. It makes complete sense on all levels: business (Paizo need to make money), mission statement (keep 3.x as it was, in face of 4E), fanbase (more options)...but it's also a painful reminder for many of us.

Here's where my aesthetic concerns grow ever more pronounced. Here's also where the rules themselves start to worry me. Just like in a relationship you can overlook and forgive many things because we are people and we are all flawed and have our own problems, but there's a point where the relationship itself becomes messy and hurtful and you have to say stop.

I could go into an in-depth analysis of several of Pathfinder's non-core classes and mechanics, but I don't see it as necessary. I've jabbered enough anyway. I'm not trying to convince anyone of anything. I still think it's a good game (at its core), all flaws included. I will continue playing Pathfinder, but I believe I must admit that while I do honestly love D&D, 3.x is simply not right for me once it gets beyond a certain point.

What was the point of this post again? Probably just the rant itself.

On my hard drive there are currently sitting some eight different versions of D&D rules and just as many spinoffs (off the top of my head: LL, S&W, LotFP, B/X, RC, 3.5, 4E, DW, OSH, OSRIC, LBB, FTotSQ, RBH...), not to mention stuff like E6. It's hard to say what ties them together, if anything. Looking for the "perfect D&D" is just as self-defeating as looking for the "perfect RPG". Those games all do different things.

But rules aside, what D&D will always mean to me is
"a bunch of low-born people in a fantasy environment, visiting exotic locales, exploring ruins, wizard towers and caves, surviving by their wit and brawn, sometimes running away, sometimes emerging victorious with a few gold pieces more and a story to tell."
I plan to write that game some day. Until then, it's one of the bazillion "official" iterations.

1 comment:

  1. The hell, what's wrong with the Neutronium golem? I mean, it was the only thing that gave my Prometheus Zeus pause. : <