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Conflicting Desires

September 10, 2015

pfdnd_coverI’ve updated my About page with a run-down of my gaming history, which might help explain how my attitudes towards gaming have developed over time. When it was proposed by my current group that I run a Pathfinder game, I was a little horrified. I played and DM’d a lot of 3rd edition D&D, and had an intense dislike for the system from both sides of the screen – but most of all as a DM. I had actually promised myself a long time ago that I would never run a 3e game again. One look at this blog should tell you how that worked out.

And the fact is, the experience hasn’t been all that terrible (although we’re getting to the levels where my frustration factor kicks into high gear). Part of that may just be that we don’t get to play very often, compared with the group that I played 3e with; I have more time to prepare for each sessions now. But also I’ve realized something – while I don’t care for 3e/PF’s rules, I really and truly enjoy the character generation mini-game. And as a DM, I adore creating mechanical monstrosity NPCs, even as I realize that the NPC creation process is detrimental to the actual playing of the game. I like having the resource limits – this many points for ability scores, this many feats, no more than this final CR, and so on – and seeing what I can come up with. Free-form, story-based systems may be more fun to run, for me anyway, but they can be a bit of a bore to prep for in comparison.

Admittedly, my attitude was not so rosy back when I was DMing 3e, as building complex NPCs meant pouring through book after book and typing it all up by hand. But now I have Hero Lab, and I can have my cake and eat it too. For most any major foe the PCs have or will face, I have a handful of different builds sitting on my computer as I experimented with different ways to capture the right feel for them within the framework of Pathfinder’s NPC construction rules.

I recently realized just how much I love chargen when I got a couple of the books for FFG’s new-ish Star Wars RPG for my birthday, and started obsessively playing around with OggDude’s awesome character generator. And a few years back, after I received Cubicle 7’s The One Ring as a present, I had spent a lot of time with this pretty amazing web-based chargen tool. And thinking back further, as a kid I would spend hours and hours rolling up random super-heroes with the charts in TSR’s old Marvel Superheroes RPG (edit: I found a character generator for that, too, but obviously I didn’t have that back in the day). I just really enjoy creating characters within a defined mechanical framework, whether it’s point-buy, choose from a list, or random tables.

But I also really dislike the system mastery that such frameworks typically require of players – or, for random chargen, the imbalances that result – and see that as a real impediment to a fun and satisfying game for all. Personally, I enjoy exploring rule systems and acquiring that mastery, but I haven’t had the (mis?) fortune of playing with many people who posses that same desire.

I suppose that I’m a power-gamer who enjoys having lots of character options but hates how that plays out at the table. I want a RPG with mechanically interesting characters that can be tailored to taste in distinct ways, but where all options are balanced so that the players with a poor grasp of the mechanics don’t get left in the dust. And one that is rules-light enough to not get bogged down by the system in actual play. It’s impossible. For a long time I’ve searched for the “perfect” RPG for me, but I’m just now realizing that the different elements that I would want in a game cannot reasonably co-exist.


From → D&D, Gaming

  1. Mei Yu Lian permalink

    Have you ever read GURPS or Ars Magica?

    GURPS have a pure point-buy character creation, with a large pool of options. At the same time you can play it fairly rules light (since the multitude of add-on rules are optional) even if many people prefer to run it fairly rules heavy.

    And then there’s Ars Magica, which I must admit is my favorite RPG. It can take a bit of getting used to, and by now there’s something like 40 sourcebooks, but you can run it with just the core book and it works very well I think. There’s even a very nice character manager (Metacreator), which sadly isn’t free though.

    • I played GURPS very briefly a long time ago, and had read the Ars Magica book around the same time. I always liked a lot of the ideas contained in AM – unlike D&D, it at least acknowledges upfront that non-casters are not the equal of the casters – but at the time I didn’t know what to do with a game where everyone is a wizard (or the servant, if the wizard is busy) in a historical fantasy Earth.

      Are all the character options in GURPS really balanced? As both a universal system (it has to cover a lot of bases) and a point-buy system (where assigned values are going to contain assumptions about what’s important to the campaign), I find that hard to believe.

      I guess a better way of expressing myself is that my ideal game would both reward and not require system mastery. That’s the impossibility. I enjoy learning the system and figuring out what’s important and how to achieve it (or more often for me, how to take oddball concepts and make them viable), but the people I game with (and have gamed with in the past) are terrible at that. Which has resulted in a lot of disappointments and frustrations at the table that could be avoided with games that are less… rules-y? But those games don’t scratch my rules-mastery itch.

      • Mei Yu Lian permalink

        GURPS isn’t balanced. Partly because game balance is the Holy Grail of RPG design, in the sense that it can never be discovered, or if discovered, will be lost almost right away. it is something to quest for or to ignore, not obtain.
        It is common to speak of game balance as if it is real and absolute, but it is not. It is very subjective, because it’s not about any actual, factual thing, but about how we (as players) feel
        …but I try not to rant on this subject 😉

        Ars Magica’s current .edition is the 5th (from 2004 I think). This is the edition I would probably recommend. It certainly rewards system mastery, if you decided to go into little corners of what can be done with magic, but can be played with (in my experience) little more mastery than “calculate total, roll dice, do I want to spend confidence?” in my experience. Though admittedly it might help that our (ArM) group is decidedly non-competitve, so my perception may be skewed.

        I know exactly what you mean about needing to scratch the rules-itch.

      • Perfect game balance is impossible, sure. That doesn’t mean one can’t try to do one’s best to achieve it. If a game is going to assign different values to different options, I would like for there to be some kind of logic behind the choices (the other option would be to chuck the concept of balance from the start, but not many games do that). And of course there are assumptions – usually unstated, often incoherent – about how the game is to be played encoded in those values, and even in the selection of available options.

        That’s why I’m more interested in games with a narrower focus these days. Such games, I think, tend to be upfront about the underlying assumptions, more coherent and balanced in pricing options, and more likely to deliver on the promised play experience.

        I mean, I could say I wanted a balanced version of D&D (and I did, for several decades, even), but what does that mean? A ruleset that’s balanced for how *I* play the game, which may not match others’ experiences.

      • Mei Yu Lian permalink

        Agreed. Game balance is a nice thing to strive for, which is why I chose the Grail as the symbol: The Quest for the Holy Grail was in many ways what kept Arthur’s court intact, by keeping the various lords and knight striving to become better people to find the Grail, rather than meaner people to become rich.

        I don’t know if GURPS is balanced in the sense that the price for advantages make sense – in fact, I’ve noticed that some of the more interesting advantages and concepts are ‘priced out’ (needlessly expensive) to encourage certain styles of play, which seems contrary to the concept behind GURPS. :-/

        Can I ask what more focused games you’re looking at?

      • Well, it’s mostly reading rather than playing, as I’m running this long-term Pathfinder game at the moment. 🙂 But I’m thinking of a lot of what Margaret Weis Productions publishes, like Leverage for running heist games, or Smallville for doing super-powered soap operas, or Firefly for space cowboy action & adventure. Or FATE, even though it’s generic, as it’s aimed at encouraging players to act like characters in a story rather than providing a world-building toolkit. Or Dungeon World, which is basically a rules-light D&D game, but one whose rules are story-based instead of world-sim based. But out of those sorts of games, I’ve only actually played MWP’s Marvel Heroic Roleplaying.

  2. As an addendum, I’ve also discovered that there’s a Marvel Super Heroes character generator out there:

    Playing around with it reminds me of how the random chargen in that system was really terrible.

    • Mei Yu Lian permalink

      Oh yes. Random chargen can be completely off – and is almost never balanced..

      • Hm, well I think one could design a good supers random chargen. I was even working on one for a while for MHR, which like many projects I never finished. I’m not sure one is possible for MSH, since it has several different “bins” for powers (stats, powers, talents). It’s a good genre for random power levels, though, as that reflects the source material. But you have to have a game that’s built with that imbalance in mind.

      • Mei Yu Lian permalink

        I must admit I’m not a huge expert on the supers genre.

        Accepting ahead of time that the game will not be balanced, could help.

  3. Pinkius permalink

    I feel that balance should be tempered by your expectations of character performance.
    For example.
    I chose to make a cleric, and I wanted him to be the lucky guy, so I gave him the luck domain and grabbed the human race feats defiant luck and inexplicable luck. I would reroll all the rolls.
    I figured some melee capability would be helpful at least at the beginning, so I grabbed guided hand, and later mythic guided hand. (it turns out mythic makes magic rather pathetic, so kudos to me.)
    I also decided to focus on summoning, because what else can clerics do well? Other than healing, not a heck of a lot!
    I ended up rerolling things a lot, and performing mediocre in melee combat, as well as being a decent damage sponge because I was no fool and spread my beginning stat scores widely. Good Con was/is very valuable. but at the same time, the enemy can’t ignore me as I can nearly full heal the paladin and magus after they run in and get shredded. The summoning… not as useful, even at level 20.

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