My Favorite NPC Lived, Thanks To System Mechanics

Last time, I talked about an NPC I fell in love with (Anneliese), and hoped the PCs wouldn’t kill. They didn’t kill her. Amusingly, they didn’t kill *anyone*, although they did beat a lot of people up quite significantly. The others escaped, but they left Anneliese behind because she was hobbled and the intelligence agent didn’t like her anyway.

So… the PCs gave her a ride back to town to get healing. Seriously. Now, obviously, the players themselves get credit for making fun RP decisions instead of killing everyone in sight. But, it’s not just them…

The System Itself Helped

This is where the fact that we were playing Fate Core and not D&D helped. One of the fundamental differences is that combat is a heavy focus of D&D, and lethal combat is the norm. You have to actively take steps to avoid killing your target, unless you just get lucky on damage rolls and put them into the disabled/bleeding out state (and with my Cleric slinging around Save or Die spells… yeah).

In Fate Core, killing people is not the norm. You “take them out” of combat, and it takes an active action after the fact to kill them. If people concede, typically they won’t die in that scene (otherwise they probably won’t concede). The difference between it being an extra step to kill, as opposed to an extra step to not kill. That distinction seems small, but the subtle change makes a major difference in how players approach it.

Another way the system helped is by shifting the focus. I had a player remark at the end of the night that Fate was quite good at encouraging storytelling out of the session. Storytelling tends to flow better if you’re not murdering everyone you meet, and this NPC had lots to say. We had a rather silly exchange on the way back to town after the fight, when two PCs were arguing over who to bring the crate they retrieved back to (one NPC wanted it back unopened, the other wanted to study it before returning it). Anneliese kept interjecting herself into this conversation, because she could, and it fueled things along really well. Can’t do that if she’s dead.

That exchange between the PCs ended in them having a contest of wills (rather than one of stabbing), and the player who lost it remarked afterward that she was okay with the outcome because it felt fair, and that she got to play her character out really well, so the outcome had some kind of narrative sense to it. That meant a lot to me, as the DM.

One of the reasons we get that storytelling focus is that the mechanics are much simpler, and don’t get in the way of telling a good story. In fact, one of Fate’s key rules literally is “Never let the rules get in the way of a good narrative.”

When Systems Hinder

One of the things that D&D does really well is give you that dungeon crashing heroic experience. What doesn’t it do well? Lots of other things.

D&D is a complex game, and 3.5 (the preferred version around here) is especially so (5e is a positive step away from excessive complexity). There’s rules and mechanics for almost everything you can do in combat. There’s tons of modifiers to things. Figuring out what you can do at high level and keeping track of all the math gets complicated, and it sucks up time and brain cycles.

Calculating attack at high level
You forgot the modifiers from Prayer, Shaken, Giantsbane, partial concealment, Fatigue, and Enlarge Person.

That weight tends to be a hindrance to simple storytelling, because I keep having to go look up exactly how grapples work to see if I can pin someone and put them into an arm bar, instead of just saying “I try to wrestle this guy down and put him into an arm bar” and doing the roll.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s certainly possible to do a narrative heavy game in D&D, it’s just harder. The system is not helping you with the crushing weight of rules it’s got, and doing it is making your job harder as opposed to a game designed for it.

Would I Use Fate Over D&D Again?

Short answer? Yes.

Long answer? It depends on the players. Some players really like the complexity in D&D and they feel they’re losing something in Fate, so they wouldn’t be as happy. If I’m DMing for that group, I’d use D&D.

Other players, especially the ones who don’t game a lot and/or have difficulties with math, LOVED the simplified mechanics and focus change that Fate brought. They were happier and more eager to do stuff, because they had an easier time translating what they wanted to do into game actions and understanding their likelihood of success.

We’re still trying to nail down exactly how we want magic to work in Fate (as Fate Core has no magic system built in, and magic is pretty key to the setting I’m using), but I think we’re pretty close there after trying a couple of different things. Overall it was a very positive experience, and I can definitely see mixing some Fate campaigns in between our D&D campaigns.

Pathfinder Online Never Had A Chance

Between my vacation and Diablo III’s 2.3 patch invigorating the game, I’ve lost my momentum in FFXIV. I want to login… then I don’t because something more interesting comes up. Hopefully I can turn that around soon, because I want to get back into it. But damn, 2.3 is an amazing patch from an amazing expansion. Considering where Diablo III was originally, Reaper of Souls might be the single greatest expansion ever made. It completely turned the game around.

Pathfinder Online Layoffs and Possible Shutdown

The news today is Pathfinder Online’s layoffs. First of all, my condolences to everyone who lost their job. That’s terrible and I wish it on nobody (except Stephen Harper, but he’s got a MP pension for life so he’ll be fine).  Most of the dev team is gone, with just the leads remaining to try and get the next two patches out. No new features are in development unless they can get more funding, which means dealing with a publisher and likely selling the company to said publisher. The server is still up for this month, due to subscription money, but that’s the only reason the lights are still on.

If it looks grim, that’s because it is. The MMO market is extremely tough right now. The game appears to be nowhere near finished. It doesn’t have a ton of buzz, or a top tier IP to lean on (Pathfinder is a great pen & paper RPG, but it doesn’t bring mainstream eyeballs). It’s a sandboxy PvP game, which the market is flooded with right now, and also which doesn’t draw mainstream eyeballs. Not a lot of publishers are big on getting into the market right now.

It’s going to be tough to pull out of this and put a game out.

But Really, It’s Not Pathfinder…

Pathfinder Online’s biggest problem, though, is that it bears little resemblance to Pathfinder. I could never understand what they were going for in using that IP. Looking at their webpage, lets take a look at the bullet point feature list:

  • A Fantasy Sandbox

Well, yes. This fits. Pathfinder (and it’s direct ancestor D&D 3.5) are definitely fantasy sandboxes. Of course, the tabletop version only really has the limits imposed by the Dungeon Master, and an MMO can’t possibly hope to be that good of a sandbox, but this makes sense. I would have loved to see a smaller scale party game with a DM role, though. (Kind of like what Shadow Realms was pitched as.) That said, this is in theme with Pathfinder.

  • Open World PvP

… Well, okay. PvP does exist in Pathfinder. It’s hardly the focus, though. Virtually all published campaign material, most of what happens in Pathfinder Society, and the vast majority of custom campaigns aren’t based on PvP. The core game is built around a group working together at least on some level. Players do sabotage each other and are often trying to further their own ends, but games that go into outright open PvP rarely last very long because the game just doesn’t work that way. Once I kill your character, you probably need a new one since I’m not going to pay to resurrect you. The new one has no reason to hate my character unless you’re metagaming.

In fact, I might just animate your corpse and then stick you in a portable hole to make it virtually impossible for anyone else to resurrect you. Standard MMO open world PvP doesn’t capture what actually goes on when real PvP happens in Pathfinder, it’s a totally different animal. Death in a tabletop game often has major consequences, and can easily require a new character be created if it’s a PvP death (PvE deaths are different, you are more likely to have a party that wants to resurrect you if you died as part of the team). In a MMO? Often times death is largely meaningless, and even if it does mean something, having it mean “you have to make a new character” will chase off your players real fast.

  • A Player Driven Economy

Wait, what? The “economy” in Pathfinder is largely inherited from D&D, and it makes very little sense as a true simulation. Once again, there is next to no published material in which players are playing farmers. I actually did run a campaign where players ran an item shop, but they also went out adventuring to get inventory for it (profit margins are excellent when you don’t pay anything to create stuff!)

Gathering isn’t a thing in Pathfinder. When you want to make stuff, you use gold to buy the materials. For some of the crafting feats (like scroll making), gathering would be basically impossible even if you wanted to do it, as you’d actually need a supply chain and production workers to create the materials.  Then, there’s this:

With the exception of some beginner gear and some consumables and vanity items from the cash shop, every item in the game will be crafted by player characters.

Have these guys played Pathfinder? This very rarely happens. Crafting feats are expensive and time consuming. High level items are very rarely made by players, because a Greater Rod of Metamagic Quicken would take 170 days of game time to craft. You know of many campaigns that expect their adventurers to have 170 days of downtime? It’s not the common scenario for players to craft much of anything, let alone high end items, let alone all of them. In fact, it runs counter to the system design: encounters are designed with certain amounts of loot, including items. There’s a whole section about it in the Pathfinder rules (in D&D 3.5, a significant part of the Dungeon Master’s Guide is on how to do this, as well). You’re going to find or buy the majority of your items, and players are not expected to be both mighty heroes and top tier blacksmiths. You can do it, but it’s so cumbersome that it’s rarely done.

The economy that exists in Pathfinder is there to work for the game. That is, outfitting adventurers is a significant part of the world economy, and lots of NPCs make a living doing it. The idea that players should actually be doing this instead is so far afield form the table top game that I have no idea where it’s coming from. This is someone wanting to make an open world sandbox MMO rather than a Pathfinder game.

The core problem here? This is not Pathfinder. This is an open world PvP sandbox MMO that happens to have the Pathfinder name. It’s not going to attract many people interested in Pathfinder, because the game is so far afield of what Pathfinder is about. It also won’t attract many other people based on the name, because Pathfinder as a brand doesn’t have tons of appeal outside of it’s playerbase. This project was in deep trouble right from the outset, as a result.

Plus, the Finances Were Crazy

As Moonrise just taught us, maybe trying to fund a game development project by taking a F2P game and selling early access for $15 isn’t an awesome idea. But… Pathfinder Online is even worse. This is a subscription MMO… in what amounts to early access.

That is not a typo. They were charging a subscription for a game that is nowhere near done. Is it any wonder it didn’t get much traction? This quote from the address says it all:

Q: Any thoughts about lowering the monthly price?

A: Every time we have lowered the price on Pathfinder Online in the past nine months, we have kept the same number of folks playing the game but brought in less money.  At a time when we are entirely reliant on the revenue from subscriptions to keep the game live on the server and employ our core team, decreasing the monthly price is not an option.

Lowering the sub price didn’t change the numbers. That says a lot, to me. If you followed the development of this, they tried to drum up interest, but the subscription (and the buying the game price they also had until July) were huge barriers. The pitch they were trying to sell to people was to buy the game, pay a subscription, and play it in a pre-release state? In a world full of F2P games and large budget, highly polished subscription games, why did anybody think that sales pitch was going to work? It didn’t even have a trial version until June.

Also, this:

We have always known that we would need a certain amount of money to make Pathfinder Online a reality.  Some delays in getting the game to market coupled with some anticipated funding falling through have left us about 75% short of the money we need to finish the game and bring it to Open Enrollment.

In more straightforward terms, they started the game without nearly enough money to finish it. Attempts to find the money didn’t work out, so they are 75% short of getting to “open enrollment”, which in their FAQ states that they think it’s ready for an actual release.

It Never Had A Chance

Launching MMOs in todays market is hard. ESO, Wildstar, the Secret World, and many other games have learned that the hard way. Pathfinder Online caters to only a part of the market (the PvP sandbox part), and that part has a ton of other games being made for it right now. It had extremely high barriers to entry that kept people from being interested. It has an IP that really doesn’t fit the game they are making and doesn’t really help bring people in.

Line all that up at the same time, and I don’t see how this game ever had a real chance at success. It’s too bad… but Pathfinder is at it’s best when you’re at a table (real or virtual) with friends, and a Dungeon Master who can create a more interactive sandbox than any MMO could ever hope to.

That was my favorite thing about being a DM: I create this wonderful intricate sandbox… then let the players loose in it to see what happens. Half the time I had no idea what they were going to do and had to make stuff up on the fly. It’s the wonderful chaos of shared storytelling.


Dungeon Master Appreciation Month – Love Thy Players

It’s Dungeon Master Appreciation month. Wizards of the Coast has offered up a bunch of articles on that, including suggestions on how to show appreciation. I’m currently a DM, with players coming over every sunday and my campaign going into year three (and 100 sessions!). While it’s certainly cool to be appreciated, I don’t think doing something special is particularly required or expected.

Mess Up My Sandbox

I’ve created a lovely little sandbox world for my campaign to take place in. Then the players come along and totally mess it up. This being a tabletop game, there are no real limitations on what they can do, like in a video game. Any hair-brained scheme they can imagine, they can try and do. It leads to wildly unexpected outcomes when they decide to work with the mafia boss’ wife, unintended deaths because half the party decided to have tea mid combat, and plotlines being thrown out and becoming improv routines because I couldn’t possibly predict that they would decide to chase a silly little sub story for two sessions and get a party member arrested. And of course, the session where one player wanted to negotiate a peace treaty between warring factions, and I got every other player to put aside their characters and play a diplomat from a relevant world power instead so we could actually play out that negotiation.

Yes, all those things happened. My sandbox is a mess these days, with everybody out of place, characters missing, planned storylines abandoned, other ones scribbled into the notes after the fact so I’d remember what in the world just happened, and so on.

It’s delightful. When we have a moment together that people talk about weeks later, that’s all the appreciation I really want.

Love Thy Players

And that’s really it, for me. The whole idea of DM appreciation is weird to me. I wound up running this campaign because one I was playing in ended, another player made a suggestion and offered to buy a source book for someone willing to run it, and I had an idea for a story I wanted to see play out. Here we are.

I know that the DM does a lot of work to make a campaign happen, having done it for a couple of years. I’ve had to make maps of embassies so the players could try to kidnap someone (for the mob, who then ransomed that person back to the same embassy for a tidy profit). I’ve got a fictional tabloid newspaper full of stories about what’s going on in the world. There’s weekly updates. Ledgers on item shop sales. On and on it goes.

But without those players who give me their Sunday night for years at a time, what have I really got? Not much. All the time they gave me to tell my little story to them is a great present, and I’m very thankful for it.

At the risk of being cliched, that they keep finding time for me is the best form of appreciation they can show me…

But… Let Us Play Too!

Okay, there is one more thing they could do – Run A Game!

The only downside to all this time spent as a DM is that since I started, I haven’t been a player in any pen & paper game. I’m kind of antsy to get playing again, and pretty eager for someone to run a game that I can play in.

One thing we don’t have is an overabundance of people willing to DM. We can always use more. If you want to thank your DM but don’t know how? Try running a session or two where they can just be a player. Trust me, that is the nicest thing you can do for us!