Tabletop Highlight: Role-playing

Lately, I’ve been thinking about a conversation I had with my ex a long while ago, one day when we were out to breakfast. I was talking about a Dungeons and Dragons character I was making and how I wanted to role-play them. I made the comment that they were nothing like me, and she took issue with that. After a bit of back and forth, as I asked her to explain what she meant, she eventually said “you can’t be someone you’re not. If there’s no trace of them inside you, then you can’t play them and wouldn’t even want to. Any character you make is going to have a bit of you inside them.” I disagreed back then but ultimately dropped it (which is too bad, since it turns out that her view that people couldn’t change into or try to be something they weren’t already informed a lot of my reasons for ending things last summer) since she wasn’t willing to actually engage with my thoughts on the matter.

The thing is, I constantly play people I’m not. I create characters in games who look nothing like me and who do things I wouldn’t dream of doing. I role-play my way through decisions and choices I’d absolutely do differently if I were actually faced with that situation. I pretend to be evil or a sadistic, murderous asshole in order to play out a character I’ve created. I’m a Dungeon Master and I actually role-play the bad guys. I play chaotic-aligned characters who do whatever they want because they only care about myself despite the fact that I feel guilty even pretending to not care about other people. I’m constantly pretending to be someone I’m not for tabletop RPGs and video games and I’m constantly consciously stripping away my preferences and thoughts in order to be someone else.

Role-playing is my favorite kind of escapism for just that reason, to be honest. There are days when I don’t want to be me anymore. Maybe I’m tired from a day full of mind-boggling information that makes me question the sanity of people around me, or maybe I’ve worn down from a day of trying to be more forceful so people actually listen to me when I know I’m right. Either way, being able to step out of my life and into someone else’s gives me a break from whatever it was that wore me out so I can approach whatever problems I have with a somewhat refreshed mind. It doesn’t fix anything, but it can give me the time and mental space needed to be able to fix whatever is going on. The biggest downside is that I have a tendency to get caught up in it, lose track of time, and stay up way too late while playing whatever game has caught my attention. Tabletop RPGs don’t have this same problem because they’re reliant on other people who generally don’t want to play for as long as I do, but they also hold my attention less because it is difficult to stay in whatever role I’m playing if other people aren’t even trying to stick to their character.

Not even reading helps me escape as thoroughly as role-playing does. I love books and always will, but you’re still you, even if you’re still caught up in the story. As much as I like Chris Amann and think he’s an awesome dude, sometimes I really need to just be someone else for a while rather than just get away from my problems. Video games are my favorite way to get the experience because just playing as a character in a game can make you feel things. The controls for the Nintendo Switch version of the Doom remake feel like I’m piloting a donkey on rocket skates over slick ice, but damn if I don’t feel like a total badass as I rip apart enemies and just storm through levels without a care in the world. There’s almost no role-playing in Doom because it’s just some dude on a demon murdering spree, running around until he’s killed all the demons or died, but I still get a sense of escapism from that. When I play a game specifically designed for role-playing, like Pathfinder: Kingmaker or Dragon Age, I can literally forget about the guy sitting in the chair until something happens to pull me out of my game.

There is, of course, a point when this goes too far. It’s never good to entirely lose focus on who you are or what is a part of the real world and what isn’t. Doing so causes way more problems than it could even pretend to fix and I think I’ve done a pretty good job of staying just short of that line. I occasionally overindulge, but I’m generally not consciously choosing to play a game for twelve hours. I just lost track of time and didn’t think to set an alarm or something to pull me back out again. Additionally, I also tend to play most games with the same moral compass that I have in the real world, to keep myself anchored to the identity that produced and refined it. Even though I can be someone who is nothing like me doesn’t mean I have to be. I like characters who allow me to explore different ways I could be. For instance, my Pathfinder: Kingmaker is pretty much me (in terms of personality and morality), but without the firm belief that society benefits from structures and order. My Pathfinder: Kingmaker character believes that structures are order are necessary evils that can’t be avoided if you want to be a part of society, so she tends to support the local government and it’s laws while still promoting personal freedom and self-expression. It’s a fun idea to explore since it makes me reflect on the places where my belief in order and structure falls short of doing the most good possible.

All that being said, it’s still mostly about escapism for me. I don’t really sit down to play Pathfinder: Kingmaker with the thought that I should explore a particular kind of moral quandary. I just play the game to get away and wind up getting opportunities to reflect on what it means to be a good and just ruler. Role-playing is a lot of fun and can be an opportunity for reflection and growth, even if it’s a rather slow one.

Pathfinder: Kingmaker has the Makings of a Great Game

A long while ago, I pledged to an interesting looking Kickstarter that was described to me as “Pathfinder the computer game.” Now, as the usual Game Master for a few different groups, I don’t get much of a chance to play in any tabletop games, so I instantly pledged to support the project just so I could maybe enjoy a game where I got to be a player. Like most Kickstarters, I pretty much forgot about it until October, when it came out. Unlike most Kickstarters, I shoved the emails into my Kickstarter folder and promptly forgot about it again. To be fair, I was rather caught up in a lot of stuff at work in addition to preparing myself for National Novel Writing Month, so I didn’t really have the time to be playing anything as time-consuming as Pathfinder: Kingmaker. It likely would have stayed in that folder, forgotten until my physical rewards showed up at whatever point in the future (they had a much later delivery date than the digital rewards that included the download code for the game), except I found out my grandfather was dying rather more quickly than I expected and I couldn’t process it emotionally because I’d been kept awake until seven in the morning that day.

After spending a few hours trying to deal with my emotions, eat something, get enough caffeine to pretend I wasn’t basically dead inside from emotional and physical exhaustion, I tossed aside my writing and decided to just find some dumb game to play so I could forget about Chris Amann and all his problems for a while. Which is when I remembered getting the notification email that my download code and digital rewards were ready. It took a couple of hours to track everything down, create accounts I’d forgotten to create. download the game, and figure out how to make it run optimally on my computer, but I got sucked into it immediately. I got sucked into it so thoroughly that I accidentally stayed up until almost four in the morning on a work night, playing it. And then I accidentally stayed up until almost two in the morning the following night. Since then, I’ve only allowed myself to play it on days when I don’t have anything going on the next morning, since I severely doubt my ability to stop myself from getting sucked into this game. I still play it pretty frequently, though. At least once a week, since I still need the escape it provides me. I just make sure to avoid it when I’ve got something important to do the next day that requires me to have gotten enough sleep, like writing.

As far as being “Pathfinder the computer game” goes, I’d say that’s a fairly accurate summary. The developers made some concessions when it came to adapting the rules since Pathfinder is a bit more complicated than most computer game audiences are looking for, not to mention how difficult it would be to program different numbers for all of the easily combined or excluded skills. It makes sense to get rid of crafting and profession skills because few tabletop gamers actually use them. The benefits of trying to implement those systems in a way that fits with Pathfinder doesn’t seem worth the absolute headache (and probably one or more years of development time, since they’re super complicated) including them would cause in everyone working on the project. It also makes sense to reduce the available spells a bit since there are so many “incredibly useful” spells that are actually only useful in one specific scenario that almost never comes up and can be neatly avoided thanks to video game mechanics.

The only real “tabletop game to computer game” issue is how encounters work. In the tabletop version of Pathfinder, encounters are supposed to drain the resources of the party until they are forced to rest in order to restore said resources. This means that only the weakest encounters won’t be a drain on the party and mid-to-low level encounters will still drain the party if they encounter enough of them. Since the rules are drawn from the tabletop version of Pathfinder, this same effect still applies to encounters in the computer game. However, since time is more compressed when one players is making the decisions for every character, you can get through a larger number of encounters in a smaller amount of play time on the computer game. That wouldn’t be a problem except for the fact that a lot of those encounters require expending resources and, since there are more encounters than you’d expect due to video game design logic (players need something to fight or interact with every so often or they get bored), you find yourself needing to rest more frequently than you’d like. Throw in the time management mechanic the game has–stuff like hunting up food for six people can take seventeen hours despite the skill in the tabletop game stipulating that foraging for food happens during travel time–and the fact that camping supplies weigh ten units per single-use (which is measured per-person), and you’ve in the awful position where you can’t bring supplies to cut down on time but can wind up spending over a day just finding food for everyone. I get that the game developers needed to separate the movement speed effects of hunting for food from the “find enough food” effects of hunting for food since it’s difficult to track modifiers like that ahead of time and the computer game actually measures minutes and hours while the tabletop game measures days, generally. Still, it’s frustrating.

That being said, those are my only gripes about the game. Sure, spellcasters feel super weak at low levels, but that’s true in the tabletop game as well. In every version of it. They always have and probably always will. Any problems with using casters in Pathfinder: Kingmaker are a result of the weird resting and camping gear weight issues, so I wouldn’t call that a gripe in its own right. It’s an auxiliary gripe. Given the monumental task the developers set out to accomplish, how well they’ve done overall, how active they are in their fan community, and how often they roll out patches to fix the issues players find, I’m more than will to overlook these issues. In fact, I’m willing to advocate that you buy this game if you want something immersive, entertaining, and downright absorbing. Still, you should only buy it if you actually want Pathfinder the Video Game. It feels so much like the tabletop game that I’ve mixed up the video game with the tabletop game I’m in on Monday nights. I’ve called each character by the other’s name and forgotten who had what magic items frequently enough that I’ve started making lists to keep near each character so I can remember who has what (one is a bard and the other is a sorcerer, so they have a lot of magic item overlap). It feels like a good problem to have.

The story is what really does it for me, though. You’re essentially a mercenary hired by a local noble to take out a bandit lord set up in a neighboring unclaimed land with the hopes of establishing you as the baron of said land once the bandit lord has been killed. There is a great deal of additional political maneuvering behind their move, but you’re never really sure which side is in the right. You could make a snap judgment that one side is good and the other is bad, but honestly it’s more of a “Chaos versus Law” thing than good versus evil. The side setting you up as baron is the Chaotic side and the side trying to recruit you to their cause is the Law and Order side. There’s far more to each side than that, but that’s really the distinction between the two. The chaotic people seem nicer than the law people, but that’s often how it seems to anyone who isn’t lawful. You get a lot of information and a good number of chances to pick a side or help one cause or the other. It’s a lot of fun working through the game with these larger concepts in mind.

The combat is a bit dense at times, but that’s because you’re trying to manage up to six people’s worth of combat abilities and resources. There’s a lot to keep track of and, as long as you think of it as a turn-by-turn combat, similar to how the tabletop game does it, you’ll figure it out just fine. Aside from that, it’s actually really fun to do. I love watching the characters charge across the screen, see them line up their shots, or watch spells go whizzing around the battlefield as they all engage in the chaotic dance of combat. It’s a very cinematic experience, actually. To the point where you need to be careful or else a character might get mismanaged as you try to just enjoy the special effects on your screen.

The skill usage is a little opaque at first, but you figure it out pretty quickly. Everyone makes checks, but the little information ticker only tells you when a passive check (perception, for instance) is successful. Which makes sense, since you shouldn’t know that your characters failed to stop a hidden treasure chest. Active checks are made by finding icons on the screen or as dialogue options when talking to people. The number you’re aiming for is given and the roll plus the math happens behind the scenes. Unfortunately, there’s no part of the game that explains what happens when you fail a skill check, so it can be a mystery as to why the trap went off this time and not the last few times you failed to dismantle it. Unless you’re familiar with Pathfinder and know that failing to meet the Dice Check number by a certain amount or more results in the trap going off, you’ll be unable to figure out what’s going on. That being said, I have players I’ve been DMing for years who still don’t know how this works, despite almost exclusively playing rogues, so that’s not necessarily a failing of the game. Just, you know, keep it mind.

Character management is a bit dense, but that’s mostly because you have to become an expert in six or more character classes so you can manage their upgrades properly. Because of the wide variety of upgrades available in the game, you spend a lot of time reading up on what things do and comparing it to what your stats are. As someone familiar with Pathfinder, I expect this sort of thing but I can see how it might be difficult for someone with less knowledge or willingness to read a few walls of text. I recommend doing all your research ahead of time and rely on forums to help you pick what you should do since people who love to build characters and figure out how to do weirdly specific things are also the kinds of people who like to talk about both those things on dedicated forums.

Honestly, this game feels like a good bridge between the hardcore audience and the more casual audience. There’s everything here the hardcore min-maxing power gamer needs to build his ultimate murder-hobo but there’s also plenty of options that give less invested players recommendations and easy options for powering up. There’s even an option that’ll do the powering up for you, so you don’t need to think about it and, based on my own research into the matter, it actually builds good characters. They’re pretty focused around their core mechanic and lack the sort of weird-but-fun powers you get from a fully customized character, but they’re still very good (as in, they’re both effective and fun to play).

If you want a game that’s got a lot of gameplay hours for you, that’ll suck you in with a myriad of tasks, fun combat, and a great story, look no further than Pathfinder: Kingmaker. I love the game and am constantly looking forward to playing it again. The wide array of characters you can add and the sheer variety of characters you can create means that even multiple play-throughs could be fun and new. I suggest putting this game on your Christmas wishlist. Or just your Steam wishlist, if you think it might be a bit late to add something new to your Christmas one. Either way, get the game. You’ll enjoy it.

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!