Tabletop Highlight: Finding My Way to Pathfinder

The Monday night tabletop group I play with has two games we’re concurrently playing. One is a Fate game about a fictionalized version of the city we all live in, featuring fictional characters taking on problems we’ve heard about but never been directly impacted by. The other is a Pathfinder campaign using a set of campaign books meant to take out characters from some middling low-level to a much higher level. I joined halfway through the current campaign book, so I’m still a little fuzzy on the details of where this whole ship is headed. I’m just along for the ride because I will never turn down the chance to do something fun like play an Archaeologist Bard.

Professor Quiston, as he has introduced himself to literally everyone and everything with enough intelligence to pause at the flashily-dressed man wandering around in a jungle, is a representative of the research university from his home country. The country has a vested interest in the exploration of a lost city, which is how all the other players made their way from their normal lives to this remote corner of the world. Professor Quiston, being rather academic by nature, set out along at the behest of the university and entirely missed the memo that there was a group of adventurers looking to do the same thing. Rather than enjoy a set of thrilling adventures to get from the city to these magnificent ruins, he set out alone and promptly got lost in a jungle. To be entirely fair, he did get to the area of the ruins first. He just didn’t find them on his own for over two months. Instead, he walked through the jungle and used music to distract all the nasty beasts that wanted to eat him since he’s entirely too well-dressed to engage in that kind of rigorous physical activity. Truly, the life of an academic did not prepare him for the trials he faced on his own, but he found the other adventurers by stumbling into their camp one night after trying to calm himself by playing some soothing music on his harp and spotting the fire thanks to the bonus it gave him to his perception checks.

Since then, Professor Quiston has helped these much more qualified adventurers by playing music, knowing things, and being absolutely fascinating to the local wildlife. And the local civillife. Fascinate, the Bardic Music ability, works on anything even remotely intelligent and Quiston gets a bonus to his diplomacy checks if he’s using music as a part of making them. He lives a bit of a charmed life, providing illusory support, healing, and the occasional magical buff while staying far away from combat. He has a magical weapon and a magical shield, but he has yet to actually use them. He used his whip once, but that was to hit something full of baby spiders from fifteen feet away. He also used his dagger once, but that was to collect samples. He is still an archaeologist, after all. He’s gotta collect samples to ship back to his university once the support crew following the other adventurers shows up. And what samples he will have! He’s met a living god, engaged in civil discourse with a tribe of intelligent and possible demonic apes, and even found a crazy lady living in a decrepit, overgrown mansion in the middle of a slightly more jungle-y part of the woods. All without needing to bleed over it! His memoirs will surely earn him a place amongst the elites of his university, should he manage to survive long enough to make it back there.

Roleplaying aside, I’ve been having a lot of fun with Pathfinder. The system is close enough to Dungeons and Dragons’ 3.5 edition to mess me up on a couple of things since there is still some variation to how the rules work, but it has a distinctly different feel to it once you start to get into the details. The power levels are completely different and while I do miss 3.5’s penchant for having an analogue of pretty much everything in some book or another, I’m enjoying the focus Pathfinder has on improving the basics so each class feels new and powerful in its own way. I’m sure there are exceptions to this rule, but I haven’t found them yet. I’m still pretty new to the game after all. I’ve been getting a little more experience thanks to Pathfinder: Kingmaker, the computer game, but that’s not exactly representative of the whole Pathfinder experience since the computer game needed to have a bunch of stuff trimmed out of it in order to make it actually a viable computer game. I mean, I get that casters are pretty under-powered in low levels because of their lack of ability to participate in a fight once their spells have been used for the day, but I feel like fact that an all martial group can just power through every encounter is just bogus. It fits the trope of the weary, injured fighter facing off against a powerful wizard who just ran out of spells to cast, while yelling the iconic “I never run out of sword,” but I feel like there should be a better way to balance things out.

Part of the problem is that Pathfinder campaigns are set up around the idea that a group of adventurers can handle a certain number of encounters in a single day before they deplete all of their resources. The number is much lower than you might think, or else the encounters are much weaker than the party, and that doesn’t translate well to a video game. I found a dungeon that, based on setup, required me to clear large swaths of it in one run, without much of a chance to safely rest, and the sheer number of encounters that were above the “no sweat” threshold was staggering. I almost gave up and made a new character because I was struggling with it so much. It would have been fine, but all of the enemies had some kind of poison or another so even my martial fighters were running out of strength and constitution. Throw in the fact that camping supplies weigh an idiotically high amount per person per day and you find yourself unable to do anything but constantly return to the world map where you aren’t required to use camping supplies but can instead spend seventeen hours hunting in order to find enough food for six people. Instead of, you know, shooting a single deer and feeding everyone off that. Tabletop Pathfinder survival checks for food don’t generally take that long or are otherwise baked into a day’s activities.

I’m still enjoying Pathfinder: Kingmaker, despite it’s flaws. I’ve adjusted to how the computer game expects me to direct combat and manage my resources, so things are a bit easier now. I’ve also passed the weak low-level point, so I finally feel effective again. I’ve also learned a lot about Pathfinder thanks to me doing research about the rules, useful feats, and how to streamline character builds so I don’t waste levels on useless feats and skills. Still, it’s making me want to run a campaign of the tabletop version of Kingmaker, and I’ve got enough friends that it would be fun to do. I’ve never run out of a campaign book before, so I think it would be fun and relaxing to be able to do it. And, now that Pathfinder is producing a new set of rules, the original stuff should be on sale! I’ll be able to buy all the books and such for cheap! Except that’s not how nerds work. We collect shit for forever and the prices of rule books like this only ever go up unless it’s a total flop. And I do mean total. They only go down if no one likes it or buys if. If anyone likes it, the prices usually stay the same.

If you know any good online tools for Dungeons and Dragons, Pathfinder, or online games in general, let me know about them! I only know about a couple, but I’m looking to learn since I’ve got a couple of games that could benefit from being moved online. Happy gaming!

We’ve got a new Tabletop Highlight! It’s about my experiences with Pathfinder and what I’m looking to do in the future. It’s also about the computer game, Pathfinder Kingmaker, though I’ll admit that part is a tangent. Check it out!

Tabletop Highlight: The Appeal of the Classics and Why Fifth Edition is Perfect for That.

Some days, all I really want to do is throw aside all of my current Dungeons and Dragons campaigns in favor of returning to what I always call the “simple roots” of the game. My main campaign is a complex game with political intrigue, long-term mysteries, a fully customized world, a huge history full of references for my players to explore, a whole range of villains the players can kill or continuously encounter, and is an absolute delight to run despite being completely exhausting. I put a lot of work into keeping the campaign running smoothly and making sure my players are enjoying themselves, so I often fantasize about running something a little simpler. Something smaller-scale, really.

I have a tendency to let my imagination run away from me so even something I’ve described as a “shiggles” (shits-and-giggles) campaign winds up with a complex political landscape and more customizations than I can easily manage without a lot of reference work. My main campaign was supposed to be a simple campaign, focused around a small area and with tons of adventure for the players to find without pulling in politics and “Grand Adventure Across the World!” so I could enjoy running without constantly exhausting myself. That plan lasted maybe half a dozen sessions before I thought of a great story I could tell my friends. I don’t regret it and I enjoy running my campaign, but I’m starting to crave something a little simpler again.

Starting to play the fifth edition of D&D has magnified the craving. The system is set up much more simply. For example, the numbers are easier to manage across the board in fifth edition versus any prior edition. My main campaign, using the 3.5 edition set of rules, has a rogue with an Armor Class (how difficult it is to hit someone with an attack) of 19 and a scout/ranger with an AC of 31-35 depending on how much he’s moved during his turn. Depending how much effort each character puts into their AC, this gap could shrink to nothing or grow to be even larger. As a result, it is difficult to give my players enemies that are a threat to the higher-AC characters without being over-powering to the lower-AC characters. The same goes for attack bonuses (the bonus a character gets when attacking that contributes to their attempt to overcome their opponent’s AC) since the Paladin can get a bonus of 20 or higher while most other characters of the same level are working with something in the 10-14 range. This also complicates things for the same reason the AC disparity complicates things.

In fifth edition, the bonuses don’t get much higher than 15 and ACs rarely hit 30 for anyone. There’s very little ability for a focused, driven player to get their character’s attack bonus or AC to a level that would make it almost impossible for an enemy to fight them. In fifth edition, it is super easy to fudge numbers as I need to since the players will have a smaller range for me to consider. In 3.5, it can be difficult to fudge numbers because they fudge for everyone and all stats were NOT created equal. This means I need to spend more time on the front end making sure the encounters are balanced so that the low-AC rogue who turns invisible before literally every attack (which means he can only attack every other turn at most) has the ability to not only survive the fight but contribute to the damage at a level that at least comes close to the amount the scout/ranger and Paladin can dish out in their frequently optimal situations.

In 5th edition, all I’d really need to do is make sure I’ve got a general idea of the location and purpose of whatever the players decide to explore. I can make up numbers on the spot, fill in encounters as dictated by the players’ ability to handle them, and even make an easy encounter a bit more difficult by just making everything a bit tougher. I’d be able to focus on maps and letting my players explore than needing to quietly direct them behind the scenes so they wind up someone I’ve got prepared for them. Hell, I could build the entire thing early on and just give them a continuous string of “the mayor’s daughter was kidnapped” and “there’s some gnolls out in a cave who’re raiding merchant caravans” quests until they got tired of playing or have literally bought the entire country they lived in with all of their fabulous adventurer wealth. The whole story would be about creating their legacy and achieving fame and fortune rather than some problem in the world that only they can fix.

In my mind, that’s classic Dungeons and Dragons. I’m willing to bet D&D has always been a pretty even mixture of the simpler style stories of just wandering around a world full of danger and treasure and of being sent on a quest to defeat a series of sequentially stronger Big Bad Evil Guys. I just have a tendency to run campaigns that are mostly the latter and hear about wonderful, fun campaigns other people played in that are the former. I want to run one of the simpler style campaigns, or maybe even a pre-made campaign. It would be interesting to be able to focus on the stuff specific to being a Dungeon Master instead of a story creator when running a game. I bet I’d learn a lot about what makes for good tabletop storytelling.

Tabletop Highlight: Weapons of Legacy

I love world creation. I like making up complex worlds with a lot going on and creating a sense of history for the world. I want to make it feel like it stretches beyond the story being told now and, if things go well, that it will continue one for ages to come. That can always be a tricky prospect in any story-telling format, but it can be especially tricky in D&D because no one cares about the past unless you find ways to tie what is going on now to the past. The same can be said of books, but generally the characters in a book are more easily maneuvered into seeing the importance of the past than people playing characters in a D&D campaign.

While there are an endless number of details you can use to draw attention to your campaign’s history and what went on before the characters showed up, not every player is going to be willing to let their attention be drawn. Even then, a lot of the historic information feels like it has been created just to add motivation or information to a present situation, so the depth is lost. My favorite way to add some depth beyond constant references to things that happened long ago and ancient ruins that weigh down their halls with history is a mechanic that D&D 3.5 called Weapons of Legacy. It even has its own book by the same name.

The idea is that certain weapons (or armor, shields, or general items) had so much magic and power invested in them by someone that they started taking on a life of their own. They became these immensely powerful things that show up throughout history, in the hands of different owners who just add to the thing’s legacy. There are a whole bunch of pre-made items in the book and each one has stories about how the legacy item came to bear its current legacy, what has been done with it since then, and where it might be waiting for a new bearer. It even has rules for making custom weapons of legacy, either for enterprising DMs who want to add depth to their world or for players who want to create their own legacies as their characters grow in power.

I enjoy creating legacies as characters grow because it can be really fun for their legacy item to suddenly manifest powers when they’re in a tight corner. It adds a lot of flavor to the characters as they grow and can help them find direction for their growth when players are otherwise struggling to figure out what is next for their character beyond the continued adventure. I prefer to make them myself, perhaps a little tailored to fit my players, so they’re forced to do some research and learn about the past. I like to tie them to plots going on so players become invested in resolving the plots and ensuring that everything eventually gets resolved rather than forgotten about.

The part I enjoy the least is the number of feats and penalties involved in a weapon of legacy. Sure, they’re often WAY more powerful than any other single item in 3.5, but I feel like the penalties take away from the fun and power the players are supposed to feel as a result of the legacy. I don’t mind if my players wind up a little over-powered because it makes them feel like they’re powerful enough to change history. That is, of course, until I throw a dragon turtle at them that nearly takes out the entire party and would have if the entire party besides the Bard weren’t strikers who can deal high damage to single targets. True story.

Honestly, the flavor parts of the legacy items are my favorite parts. I like coming up with the origins and history of the item, in addition to what the Weapons of Legacy book calls the “omen,” or the thing that hints that this isn’t just an ordinary weapon. Combining that with the Individual Magic Effects from the Goblins webcomic makes for some REALLY fun effects when a character picks up and uses a legacy item. They’re all-around fun for me to make and add to my campaign, my players love the power and history they add, and cool stuff (like a dagger made from the largest piece of a shattered Reaper’s scythe) is cool.

What Does “D&D” Mean?

I’ve been playing D&D for going on 7 years now. That’s not a long time by any means, since I only started playing in college, but it has been a pretty significant part of my life ever since then. I had a really good DM the first time I really played (a campaign) and a really bad DM the second time I played. The third time I played, I was the DM.

As any DM will tell you, the first time you run a campaign is always rough. I’ll definitely admit that a lot of the issues weren’t a result of an inability on my part, but more a result of the social dynamics that grew up over the year and a half that I ran my first campaign. Things started well enough, everyone had a good time, and I had a pleasant world for the characters to explore. By the end, I was making dumb stuff up just to fill the next session, my players resented what I had built for them, and some of the players tried to stage an intervention.

While all that was going on in our sessions, the group of players (who had become my only friend group over the past year due to most of my other friends either leaving the college or picking sides in an argument in our fraternity that I refused to get involved in) stopped spending time with me, my best friend tried to get my girlfriend to break up with me and date him instead, and all of my friends (how they all found out, I’ll never know) decided that it would be best to keep all of this from me. I suppose you could see why I might not be super motivated to make their D&D experience an enjoyable one.

After that, I didn’t do much large-scale DMing for almost a year. I ran a few sessions here and there, did a couple one shots, had small-scale campaigns to test worlds I had built, and was unable to find D&D to play anywhere else. After a year and a bit had passed, and I had gotten some closure on what had happened with the players in my last major campaign, I started a new one. I built this elaborate, ridiculous world that broke most of the rules players take for granted and was entirely geared around the idea of just having fun.

After that, I generally tried to keep my campaigns on the sillier side. I’m really good at keeping people laughing, at fostering a relaxed, fun atmosphere, and coming up with the best jokes and situations for the people currently playing in my campaign (there was no set cast since each session was its own full adventure) was fairly simple. I will admit that I stayed away from the more serious and story-oriented campaigns because of how horribly things went the last time I’d done one. I didn’t think I could stand being rejected and hurt like that again.

I really like to make people laugh. I enjoy story-telling more than almost anything. I enjoy creating these worlds for people to explore and helping them to reach their utmost potential. I love being a dungeon master. Even with all that, there was always something missing for me when I ran one of my silly campaigns. I never enjoyed it as much as I knew I could. In early 2016, I realized it was because I was telling stories without nuance, stories without a life of their own that took place in a two-dimensional world. Yes, they could be fun, but I knew there’s so much more that I could be doing.

Early last spring, I started a new campaign with my roommate and three of our closest friends. A small party with a tight focus on what was going on in the world. I painted broad swathes of the world in simple colors and then filled in the narrow sections they occupied with extraordinary detail, giving them the feeling of really living in the world. I provided them with an array of tools and sub-plots that they could pick and choose from, figuring out how to use each tool to fit their situation and finding their way down what seemed the random disparate paths of their plots only to find them all tied together neatly at the end of the first story arc. We brought in a fifth player to fill some of the gaps, another close friend, and I was able to add even more to the world with what he brought to our sessions.

As we approach the one-year mark, I can happily say that we’ve avoided all the problems I ran into with my first major campaign five years ago. The whole group is getting along excellently, they’re all enjoying themselves, and they’re all clamoring for our next session. My social life has only improved since we started playing and I’ve now got an even larger group of people who want me to run for them. I’ve started exploring new ideas of what it means to run a D&D campaign and how players can experience a D&D campaign. I’ve got so many new ideas for how I could accommodate a group of over a dozen potential players that I am super excited to try out. I can’t wait to see what this year brings for me as a DM.

I don’t play D&D as much as I used to and I kind of regret that. I really enjoy being a player and I can never seem to get enough playing that I’m ready for a break, but being a DM is where my heart truly resides. DMing is my favorite way to experience D&D and to truly live out what I believe it means to play Dungeons and Dragons.

To me, D&D is a way to connect with people I would otherwise have a hard time connecting with. D&D is a way to practice my skills as a story-teller and get instant feedback. D&D is a way to create a space in which my friends can relax and enjoy themselves. D&D is fulfilling in a way that the job I’m leaving has never been. D&D helps me scratch the itch I feel, that drives me to write, in a way that recharges my writing energy. I may end each session feeling tired and worn out from putting all my energy into making my campaign fun and engaging, but I’m never more inspired to write or create as I am when I put away my dice and stick my books back on their shelf.