Thursday, April 18, 2013

The FATE of Pathfinder

I am inordinately pleased with the awful pun in the title. Apologies. All will be made clear in due course.

Oh, and what follows is generally a bunch of self-reflective waffle about the merits of various game systems, so if that's something you're not interested in, you'd best be movin' along.

At any rate, yes - Pathfinder! Now, when I was musing on finding systems to master last year, I eventually came around to the idea of making Pathfinder one of those systems. This was due mainly to me wanting to engage again with a "mainstream" RPG, to feel a part of a large community, and to plug in to a very well-supported line of products.

I now have three Pathfinder "campaigns" under my belt: two as GM, one as player. I use the irony-quotes because none of these ventures ended up lasting very long. A half-dozen sessions, max. Personally, I was just too put off by the crunchy nature of the rules, even at low levels. And as characters leveled up, it was obvious that the crunch did too. At one point, I found myself thinking that if I wanted to invest in a crunchy system, I might be better off going with GURPS and at least have a generic universal system to show for my efforts. In the end, in my quest to plug in with a community of gamers, I forgot about my issues with crunchy mechanics.

And, unfortunately, I didn't get too much out of the community experience, either. That's mostly down to my own style of online interaction, which is generally pretty laid back. By those standards, though, and although I've got nothing against the Pathfinder community, I'd still have to rate the Savage Worlds online community as both the most welcoming and the most helpful with newbie questions.

There was also a bit of irony that played out in regard to one of my other reasons for giving Pathfinder a spin: the assumption that PF products would be readily available pretty much anywhere. I was in L.A. over the holidays visiting friends and family, and that included a session with my old game group (whom I normally game with via Google+). Since it was that group I was running Pathfinder for, a face-to-face session was in order, and for that I wanted to get a GM screen. Yet I went to three gaming stores in the L.A. area and none of them had a screen! Bizarre.

During my trial PF run I did finally get a chance to experience a taste of the vaunted "adventure path" system. It pretty much met my expectations: extremely railroady, even in the capable hands of the veteran GM running it. Brought back memories of playing Baldur's Gate II, frankly, which in the context of a tabletop RPG is perhaps not the best thing. I'm not against playing Pathfinder again, but I am totally against any more adventure paths.

In the end, all of my old suspicions about Pathfinder (based in large part on my experiences with 3.x from 2000-2004) bore out: I preferred playing the system over running it, but even then it was a bit crunchier than I cared for, and the adventure path is a style of gaming I have about zero interest in. (Nor am I a hardcore sandboxer, but that's a topic for another day). I will say that I was quite impressed with the Pathfinder SRD. Especially with our online gaming, it meant having answers to rules questions just a quick keyword search away. We almost never had to crack open the book during a session, which is nice when you're dealing with such hefty tomes.

The lukewarm failure of Pathfinder has, however, left an open question as to where to go next, system-wise, and that gets us into the punny part of the post's title. (You've been waiting for that, haven't you?) See, I've been thinking a lot over the past few months on what exactly I'm looking for when I say I want to find systems to master. Essentially, (a) I want systems that can tackle multiple genres and (b) I want systems that can deliver different "flavors" of a game experience.

For example, one of my systems of choice is Basic Roleplaying, and that does a great job of delivering fairly gritty, "realistic" games of the sort where combat is a deadly proposition even for old masters. Savage Worlds, my other current system of choice, gives a nice pulpy experience in the action-adventure vein without being too over-the-top cinematic. What's more, it's one of those systems that really encourages engaging with the mechanics; it has lots of "gamey" elements, including several fun sub-systems. Since everything's better in threes, I find myself looking for a third system that can cover that other ground of a more "narrative" experience, something a little closer to story-game territory (without getting too close). And that's where FATE comes in.

I've poked around the margins of FATE, but I've yet to really dive in. But with the FATE Core kickstarter successfully funding earlier this year, I can look forward to a single universal reference volume coming out on the market in the near future. And what I've heard and seen of FATE I quite like. Reading up on Legends of Anglerre, it looks like FATE might be a perfect system fit for my beloved Uresia: Grave of Heaven setting - unlike when I tried running it with Pathfinder, which, despite a promising start, turned out not to be so much of a good idea (at least for a novice PF GM like myself) - in much the same way that Savage Worlds is perfect for running fantasy campaigns set in Magnamund and BRP is perfect for running Rifts:2112 adventures. Although I missed out on the FATE Core Kickstarter, I did back the Achtung! Cthulhu KS - and it looks like that's getting a core release for BRP, Savage Worlds, and FATE. Such synchronicity means I must be doing something right...right? At the very least, I suppose I could run the same A!C scenario three times using each of the three systems and then see how the play experience compares. Hmmm...
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