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.

An Academic in Ruins

“I suppose I don’t really know what I am doing.”

“Sure, but you’ve never denied that. You just always followed it up by saying no one else did, either, and thus success goes to those who act first.”

“Sure, but I feel like that doesn’t really apply in this scenario. There is so very little I know that is directly applicable to the problems at hand, so action isn’t the problem solver I once thought it was.”

“It still solves more problems than it doesn’t.”

“That’s very true.”

“It would have solved our problems, if you had acted.”

The professor smiled as he surveyed the patch of dirt he’d cleared. The smile was a shallow uptick of his mouth that left his eyes as mirthless and barren as the ground around him. This was one of the first things he’d been taught when they started exploring. Find an opening in the brush, clear a circle of plants, use fire to char anything still sticking out of the ground, and then turn the dirt over until every trace of color but black was gone. A safe, semi-permanent campsite that would stay clear of plants until long after you’d left and clear of bugs or animals until the last of the scent of smoke had faded.

“Acting got us here, though, so I’m still not convinced my old philosophy was truly as sound as I made it seem back in Sargava.” The professor looked up from the campsite he’d cleared to the face of his towering companion, the empty smile still on his face. “Acting has led to far more ruin than success, once the gravity of each has been taken into account.”

The tall man standing off to the side folded his arms over his chest, a familiar action accompanied by the familiar creak of stiffened hide trying to stretch as the pensive warrior measured his words. “That’s the way it seems now, but our journey isn’t finished. If you are correct, and the ruins are out here, then it will all have been worth it.”

“Do you really think so, Amgoroth?”

Amgoroth nodded, his beard and long hair spilling over his face. “I do, Alleck.”

“I told you not to call me that.”

“It’s your name. I’ve known you for too long to call you ‘Professor Quiston,’ fancy degree or not.”

The professor dropped to his knees besides his pack and started pulling out his camping gear, smile sliding off his face so smoothly it left no trace it’d ever been there. Amgoroth stayed where he was, watching as he chewed at a bit of his mustache that spilled into his mouth. In the silence, the sounds of distant primates chattering in the trees cut through the ceaseless din of insect and bird calls. The professor had once found them comforting, in a way, but now they reminded him of the frequent silences he endured on a daily basis.

In a desperate bid to chase them away for a while long, he turned back to his companion. “Amg, I really wish you’d call me by my title. I’ve studied long enough to deserve the recognition.”

The big man broke into grin that showed his several missing teeth and pulled at the thin, silver scars covering on side of his face. “But you will always be my friend, Alleck, playing music for us as we romped through the jungles outside our village, looking for monsters to slay.”

“We both moved on from those days.” The professor’s smile came back, but this one was smaller and clearly showed the sadness hiding beneath it. “You became a champion of the wrestling rings and coliseum. I found a benefactor to put me through university. I can literally change the way the world works using my magic and you are an unstoppable juggernaut whose terrifying rages can send even a pack of jaguars running in fear.” He turned back to his bag and finished laying out all the parts of his tent.

“True, but we are still the same where it counts.” Amgoroth walked to the center of the clearing and spread his arms out to soak in the last rays of sunlight coming down through the dense canopy. “I am still looking for dragons to kill and you are still playing music as we go looking for them.”

The professor looked up at his friend and then back down at the disassembled tent, trying to let his hands take over the process of setting it up despite knowing they couldn’t. This was only his second time setting it up, after all. He’d need his full attention for that. Instead, he sat back on his heels and put his hands in his lap. “We’ve a long ways from those children, Amg.”

“We are a long way from where they lived, but we carry them inside us always, so long as we don’t let their dreams go out.” Amgoroth turned his face up to the light and the professor looked over the constellation of scars covering his arms and shoulders, remnants of the one time they’d found a monster as children and the price Amgoroth had paid to save them both from it. After a moment, Amgoroth turned to face his childhood friend and smiled again. “I still want to find dragons and you still want to see what no one else has. That’s why you spent so much time studying ruined cities and digging up old stuff.”

“It’s called Archaeology, Amg.”

“That’s more syllables than I’m willing to say in one word, Alleck.”

“Professor Quiston, please.”

“I may be your guard on this trip for some lost city, Alleck, but I won’t call you “professor” anything.”

“I’ll dock you a month’s pay.”

“You’re not paying me anything. We left as soon as you heard the rumors. Neither of us is getting paid unless we find the city.” Amgoroth turned away from the light and came over to the professor, sitting down beside him. “We’ve been wandering through this jungle for months, now, and we haven’t found anything.”

“Sure, but you know how to live off the land. We can do this indefinitely.”

“No.” Amgoroth shook his head, temporarily clearing the hair from his face. “You packed food, but it will run out soon. I will not always be able to find food. You’ve been eating your supplies a lot lately and there might not be enough to get home again, even if we knew how to find it.”

“I said I was sorry.” The professor looked down at his hands again, trying to focus on them as he fought to keep his emotions in check. “And I meant it. I still mean it.”

“That does not change the facts, Alleck.”

“What do you want from me, Amg?”

“I just want to keep you safe and alive.” Amgoroth leaned forward and started pointing to the parts of the tent in the order the professor would need them to set it up. After he was done, he gently touched the professor shoulder, so lightly it didn’t even stir his clothing. “That’s all I’ve ever wanted. To go on adventures and keep you safe. More than dragons.”

The professor nodded, not trusting his voice at that moment. Instead, he pushed himself to his feet and grabbed the first of the tent supports. Without looking back at his friend, he quickly set the tent up, playing the memory of Amgoroth setting his tent up every night for four months in his head as he followed along. By the time he had finished, Amgoroth was gone. The professor stared at the place Amgoroth had occupied and then turned his attention to gathering wood for a fire.

By the time night fell, he’d managed to get a good fire going, set up his tent, and even find a few edible roots Amgoroth had fed them almost every day they’d been trying to find the lost city of Saventh-Yhi. He roasted them over the fire and set a two aside. After he’d eaten his and washed them down with the last of his water, he glanced at the roots as if only then noticing they were there. He turned his head away, back to the place Amgoroth had been, and reached for the harp case leaning against his pack.

He pulled his harp out, tuned it without really noticing what he was doing and, once that routine task was finished, strummed a few chords. He added a couple of words in some ancient tongue and watched Amgoroth shimmer back to life.

“Sorry, Amg. I can’t keep it going if I don’t focus on it.” The professor tucked his hard away and watched his friend, stand up, walk over to the fire, and sit down by the two roots he’d set aside. Amgoroth didn’t say anything as he moved. His leather didn’t creak. He sat without the usual thump of a three hundred pound man hitting the ground, even if the little cloud of charred plants still gusted out. Even as he picked up a root and ate it, he was silent.

After watching for a few moments, the professor sighed and let the magic go. Amgoroth froze in place and, a few seconds later, vanished. The professor stared into the flames and at the campsite Amgoroth had taught him to make. Unable to stand it any longer, he climbed to his feet, harp still in his hands, and started playing a song as he walked out of the clearing. He wandered through the jungle, playing his harp to cut through the noise of the jungle and give him something to think about other than his friend’s death.

The music never really stopped it, but it softened the memories as they washed over him. The morning they’d woken up to find tracks of some large cat around their campsite. Hungry and eager for fresh meat, they’d packed up and chased after it. Right into the den of some kind of plant monster that had snatched Amgoroth off the ground. Amgoroth had been confident he could break free, but there had been so many vines… It pulled him up into the treetops and there was nothing Alleck could do but watch in horror his friend had disappeared.

Half a minute later, as he was looking for a tree to climb, Amgoroth’s shouts fell silent. Alleck had stood there, eyes and ears straining, for any sign of his friend of their attacker. When he’d found nothing, when the noise of the jungle and the silence became too much to bear, he’d pulled out his hard and walked away, playing as loudly as he could.

Once the tide of memory had receded, the professor put away memories of Amgoroth and Alleck. He turned around, retraced his steps, and went back to his camp. He packed up his tent, put out his fire, and wandered off into the jungle again, softly playing his harp as he went in search of the lost civilization he’d lost everything trying to find.

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 Highlights: D&D 3.5 Versus Pathfinder

To be entirely fair, there isn’t a big difference between these two rule sets at a macro level. Pathfinder was intended as the next step of D&D 3.5, trimming down the rules to remove complications and re-balancing the game’s power so the often under-powered martial classes could stay relevant during higher levels. As a result, it is fairly common to adapt things from one version to the other. For instance, most of my D&D games incorporate the character sheets and skills of Pathfinder, along with a few other rules–such as cantrips (the most basic, lowest-leveled spells) can be cast without limitation and all combat maneuvers are performed using the rules from Pathfinder rather than 3.5.

I find that combat runs a little more smoothly, skill allocation is easier, and general player satisfaction is higher when I incorporate these rules. It allows me to bring in a bit more power to skill-based characters without running into what I believe is the biggest problem of bringing Pathfinder rules and character stuff into 3.5. As a whole, the core components (character classes and racial abilities, mostly) of Pathfinder achieved a state of balance by increasing everything’s power. There are exceptions, of course, but it can be frustrating to try to balance a character built using 3.5 rules with a character built using Pathfinder rules.

3.5 can also be hard to adapt to Pathfinder because it has a similar problem. The core components may be weaker, but 3.5 has a wonderful array of extra feats, class variations, racial features, and poorly balanced errata that make breaking the game much easier. I can build character with limitless power in 3.5 and I’ve yet to find a way to even break the game on the same scale with Pathfinder. I can make a character that can easily move a mile every two minutes (and I know I can get it higher if I try) in 3.5 and that’s just silly. I can create cell towers and rail guns. I can do pretty much anything, if my GM doesn’t know to stop me and I’m feeling perverse. The only thing that redeems 3.5 is that it takes very specific knowledge (which anyone can now find online) to build those things and your average player doesn’t want to break the game.

When it comes down to determining which variation you want to play, 3.5 or Pathfinder, I find it breaks down fairly well. Either works great for role-playing and story-telling, but 3.5 works really well for players who want complex builds or have more experience. Pathfinder is great for people with less experience or if you want to keep your campaign simpler and more focused. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to remind a player in one of my 3.5 campaigns that, just because he found it in a rule book, doesn’t mean his character knows about it or would even be able to obtain it. This has been happening a lot in my weekly campaign, which can be frustrating at times because he keeps accidentally trying to min-max his character. If we were playing this campaign using Pathfinder, I doubt he’d be able to get up to even a quarter as much crap as he does.

The few times I’ve played Pathfinder, it worked really well for introducing new players. The abilities were much more clear and I didn’t feel like I needed to spend a few days browsing books, PDFs, and forums to figure out how I wanted to build my character. Every time I’ve gone and done a pick-up-and-play campaign at a game store, it has been a Pathfinder campaign. I’m certain the latest edition of D&D (5.0) would be just as easy to pick up and play, but I feel like Pathfinder has more depth to it for the people who want it. You can still get multipliers to your power level instead of just adding to it.

I really want to play more Pathfinder, mostly to learn more about it. I don’t own any of the books and everything I’ve read about it has been what they released online as part of their System Reference Document (search the version you want to learn about and “SRD” and you should wind up with all the rules you need to play). I’d like more experience, both as a player and as a GM. It can be fun to experiment with different rules and see how far you can go, but there’s also strong appeal to playing without all of the crazy extra stuff. Just like when I want to play Skyrim without any mods sometimes, despite loving what the mods do to the game.

Tabletop Highlight: House Rules and Homebrew for D&D 3.5

I’ll admit that I’m probably a little biased when it comes to which D&D version is the best. Almost all of my playing and running has been in 3.5 or the common mix of 3.5 and Pathfinder because the 3.5 set of rules is expansive. An expansive set of rules means it is relatively easy to find rules for something that can be nudged to fit what you want to add. Additionally, the patterns created by the existing rules make it easy to extrapolate how the system should apply to something without rules or how to change existing rules without breaking the game. As a DM who loves to tell a good story, these two things make 3.5 easily the most appealing rule set out there.

While I do all of my high-level planning and preparation ahead of time, there is a lot of small stuff that comes up during sessions I can never be prepared for. Particular shopkeepers, NPCs the players want to talk to, city layouts, the state of the black market, and so many other things my players will randomly and inconsistently want to know. In addition to that sort of thing, no amount of preparation is going to prepare me for what I need to have prepared when the players decide to take a path I hadn’t foreseen or do something that requires rules that either do not exist or that need to be modified so they’ve actually got a fair chance to fail or succeed.

For instance, I like to give my players options when they spectacularly fail certain types of rolls. A common house rule is that a string of critical fails on attack rolls can instantly kill the player’s character. I like the idea of this house rule, but a lot of players will get upset if they accidentally kill themselves like this because it feels just so stupid and random. If they died because of a choice they made, at least they feel like they earned it. So, instead of just killing them outright, I give them the choice of taking the death or taking something entirely random that could possibly be worse but would allow them a chance to survive. This way, they feel like they still have control of their character and, should they die as a result of the something else.

The only problem is that I have to make up whatever is about to happen without any preparation. A new monster, some interesting application of the rules, or even an entirely new encounter or dungeon. All of this stuff is the sort of thing I typically prepare beforehand because making it up is difficult. Without the expansive 3.5 rule set and all of the online resources people have created for the 3.5 rule set, it would be impossible.  Since I know how the basic rules are applied across the entire system and can find a bunch of different templates, abilities, and creature types, I can find a way to meld all of it together into whatever new creature or situation I want to introduce to my players.

This sort of new rule or new creature is called either “homebrew” or a “house rule.” Homebrew is anything made up by someone other than an official D&D source. A house rule is anything that a DM indicates is a rule that applies only to the particular campaign they’re running, though it may show up in multiple campaigns. Homebrew often involves house rules and most house rules are homebrew. A house rule that isn’t a homebrew rule is usually used to exclude something. For instance. I almost always ban the Tome of Battle because it creates these ridiculously over-powered characters. The only time I’ve used it was to create a tough fight for my players by giving a recurring character levels in a class from it and the one character nearly took out an entire group of six players of the same level. That’s too much power. Most of my house rules are exclusions, since a by-product of the expansive 3.5 rule set is stuff that is over-powered as a result of one-off campaign modules that introduce new rules and I have players who like to visit forums to find the best way to make their characters O-P.

My favorite house rule adds two homebrew systems to the game, called Individual Magic Effects and Character Legacies. The IME rule is taken directly from the webcomic that inspired it, giving characters a particular visual-only effect whenever they use magic or that affects the way their magic items work. Character legacies are a bit more complicated, but can give the player characters bonuses or penalties to their character depending on what the legacy means. Got a player obsessed with glory and hunting? He or She gains bonuses when they prove their prowess and bring back trophies, but gain penalties when their quarry bests them or they fail to find it at all. The bonuses and penalties can change depending on what the character hunts and how the player decides the character will act. An egotistical hunter might have charisma penalties for dealing with some people but a bigger bonus for dealing with most people while a more friendly hunter might have bonuses when it comes to bartering or doing hunt preparation.

Neither one of them has much impact on the game in the long-run since the bonuses for legacies are relatively small, compared to what magic items and feats can give players and IMEs are only visual effect (which only help or hinder in very specific situations). They just encourage my players to try to play their character more consistently and to stick to their role-playing when they might otherwise abandon it in favor of being more effective in a given situation. This is my favorite type of homebrew. Adding major rule changes or entire classes is hard to balance. If you ever want to see some ridiculous, over-powered stuff that puts the Tome of Battle to shame, you should check out some of the custom classes people have made and posted to places like the D&D Wiki.

Like a lot of storytelling, deciding how and when to modify the rules for an established game takes a lot of practice and it is easy to accidentally break something even if you’re very careful.  If you keep to a guiding principle such as “everyone should be having fun,” then you should be fine. The rules don’t really matter if everyone is having a good time and feeling like they have power in the world.