Friday, September 29, 2023

Why Pathfinder Sucks

HAHAHA. Sorry...sometimes I amuse myself.

This post comes c/o reader "Mach," who emailed me the following:
I was reading your blog about the various editions and I found a bit where you said you didn't think pathfinder was suitable for the type of long term campaign play you had in mind. Could you expound on that please? Reason I ask is because I'm a little worried and mainly curious, I've run a fair bit of pathfinder and I'm worried there might be something I'm missing or a cliff somewhere at higher levels or some such. Or maybe it causes players to drift away to other games, or some such more subtle issue.
I sent Mach a response (as I tend to do when folks write me questions like that). Mach, for his part, appreciated my answers and suggested I incorporate it into a blog post "so that I'm not the only one that will benefit from it." 

I have (good) friends who
LOVE Pathfinder...FYI
Since it's Friday, and yesterday's reflections were (perhaps) less-than-useful to (many) readers, I offer the following elaboration on previous statements (of mine) that Pathfinder is (maybe) not the best system for long-term campaign play. From my email to Mach:
My thoughts on the unsuitability of Pathfinder to long-term play is based on A) my experience with the D20 (3rd edition) D&D system on which PF was based, and B) my thoughts on just what entails "long-term play." 

That being said, I will readily admit that I have no experience playing Pathfinder, and I haven't even read the latest edition of PF, nor do I have any idea of the changes to the system with the new version. Perhaps, PF2 is more suitable to (what I consider) long-term play and I am simply ignorant of the fact. 

The issue I have with D20 (which colors my perception of PF) is that, over the course of playing, the inherent complexity of the game scales in a way that makes the thing untenable. D&D is a game that begins simply...even the third edition...and adds complexity as the game progresses (i.e. as characters gain levels and access more content). More information needs to be mastered by the players of course, but far more information by the DMs. But the mechanical complexity of D20 is such that, over the course of play: 
  1. it becomes extremely cumbersome for the DM, such that they quit or end the campaign (I've seen this personally on two occasions), AND/OR 
  2. the DM begins discarding "excess" rules, or ignoring rules that make running the campaign "burdensome." But D20 is a mechanically complex game, fine-tuned to an extreme degree, and easily thrown out of whack when rules are bypassed. 
Sure, there are probably some DMs may have a higher capacity for the minutia of running a D20 campaign at mid- to high-levels (I've seen DMs throw up their hands as early as level 7; I've seen DMs try running adventures for 15th level PCs (pre-gens) that gave up after a single encounter). But are the rules conducive to long-term play? Do they facilitate it? 

In comparison, AD&D (1E) is a robust system that provides depth without the added complexity/fiddly-ness. Monsters operate on a different scale than players. PCs, for the most part, "plateau" after reaching "name" level: their abilities increase but not in the same exponential capacity. There is less information to juggle; more attention can be paid (by the DM) to the campaign world, as opposed to making sure encounters are properly balanced and the various mechanical t's are crossed and i's dotted. In this way, 1E is more conducive to long-term comparison to 3E/PF. 

3E (again, the basis for Pathfinder) had a LOT of material written for it...including high level material (the Epic Level Handbook and whatnot). In THEORY the game will function at high levels... 

[why do I continue to bring up "high level" play? Because over time...i.e. over the "long-term"...characters progress, gain x.p. and become high level. High level play is a part of long-term play] THEORY the game functions at high levels. It has the rules, the mechanics, the support to make the game function. The practicality, however, makes it (in my opinion) cumbersome. Because long-term play is MORE than just having the content to fulfill the needs of a 12th or 14th level party. 

To run a long-term campaign, you need to build a world: a world of sufficient depth to provide meaning to the (imaginary) lives of the PCs. They need to be able to do more than simply plumb the next dungeon or go on the next quest...such adventures will, in time, inevitably PALE, if they have neither meaning nor relevance to the game world. 

And so you need to build a world. But in a system where one must have level 12 citizens and level 3 artisans and level 9 nobles and monsters with six stats, skills, and that type of system, the burden of creating a deep world is IMMENSELY cumbersome. 

Whereas, in a simpler system (say AD&D) I can say "90% of the people in this town are 0-level and possess d6 hit points." I can stat out the duke or burgormeister or tavern owner or stable boy with the roll of a D6. Rather than having to worry about the excessive mechanics, the minutia, I can focus on their personal goals, their relationships with other NPCs, the various things they might have to offer the PCs, etc. 

I don't have to worry about how feats and skills interact with the environment when there are no feats and skills. See? 
And then...what? Start over again at 1st level? What's the endgame here? 

"Long-term play" is not about reaching an endpoint. It's not about getting to a particular level...though (as I said) played long enough, characters will reach high levels. It's about having a perpetual game, a dynamic world, that players get to dip their toes into and experience...and live in for a time. The game aspects (the systems, the mechanics) are part of it...part of the game, part of the fun...but they are not the End All Be All. The WORLD you are building...and the legends the players create within the world...are the thing that's important. And that takes a fine balance: a system (or "rules") that have depth and complexity but not so much that it's overwhelming...just enough to model what needs to be modeled, to model those bits of reality that require rules. 

So that the game can last. So that YOU (the DM) can fully engage your imagination and yet still run the game in a practical, functional fashion. 

You can do "long term play" with ANY edition of Dungeons & Dragons (I think)...but some editions make it easier to do. And some make it harder.
There...something for Friday afternoon musings.

Thursday, September 28, 2023

Distinctions of Age

I'm finally starting to get it.

That's going to make little sense to anyone. "Get what exactly? D&D?" No...that I figured out a while ago. I'm talking about other things. Aging. Youth. Wisdom. Generation gaps. Political divides. Perspective. Knowledge. What it means, what it's worth, how it's acquired. The burdens of maturity. The challenge of distributing or disseminating information to others. For others. For their benefit.

Apologies. I'm not trying to be obscure with what I'm writing about, or what I want to say about the subject of these things that I'm (finally, after decades) starting to really, truly grok. But this isn't a post about those things. It is a post about me...about my relationship to this newfound understanding. About my widening awareness.

Oh, and least anyone wonder: this isn't about me knowing death or contemplating mortality (my own or others). No. And if it comes off as melancholic at all, please know it is a very wistful kind of melancholy, not my usual soul-drowning dark melancholy (the kind that I  have been a slave to many times throughout my life).

Fact is, I'm feeling pretty good at the moment. Coming off of Covid (yeah, the 'Rona finally caught me...evaded it nearly five years, though). I'm off the booze and caffeine again. Head's clear. Moderating the exercise and diet.  I feel like I'm coming into the "fullness of my strength." No, I am not "strong" at every aspect one can master in life: but I am very aware of my own capabilities, of what I can and can't do. And of the things that I am good at...well, I'm pretty darn good at them. I know my own limits and my own capabilities and...with regard to both...I can still accomplish what I want and need to accomplish. For the most part, I'm just fine-tuning at this point.

I am a rock. One still in need of polishing, but solid enough.

But what I'd perhaps aspire to be is a sun. Something giving off light and warmth...a force for life. A force for good. A fixed point, a gravitational force...though no different from the trillions of other lights in the sky, not O So Special or anything like that. Solid enough, strong enough. But shining. A beacon of sorts. 

Yes. I suppose that is the aspiration.

And so...onto my relationship with knowledge and a "deeper, wider perspective." As I wrote: I'm starting to get it. And it's...tough. It's tough because you have this incredibly useful well of understanding that you're starting to tap into...and, it's not the kind of thing that you can share. Because the people you'd like to give it to aren't capable of drinking it. It needs to be lived to be requires the experiences that come with living 50+ years. The perspective that comes. Not just from experiences...lots of young people have lots of huge, tremendous, terrible "character-building" experiences. No, it's a combination of experiences AND years lived.  It has to include the passage of time. Because then you start living cycles. And then you start understanding how the younger folks think...because you've been there. You've been a teen. And a kid in your 20s. And in your 30s. And in your 40s. You've been through those stages of life, AND you have the experiences under your belt, AND you can see how those experiences interact with each "stage of life" at those moments in time.

It's a heady feeling. And a frustrating one. And yet not a frustrating one (they'll get to where you are...eventually)...because you've learned patience along the way.

At least, I've learned patience. I wonder if, perhaps, some middle-aged folks my age haven't. That's possible. I wouldn't call myself a patient person by nature (I'd say my natural tendency is to be impatient...with myself as much or more than anyone else). But I've done work on this over the years. Meditation and prayer aren't really my cup of tea (which is fine; I know it works for some). But I've found ways to exercise my mental discipline...fasting, for example...that have helped build up the "muscle" of patience.

All of which, I realize, is largely esoteric and unhelpful. "Why bother making this a blog post, JB?" Well, first off, I wanted to post toYe Old Blog this morning. Second off, it helps mark my head space at the moment. And third off...wellll...

There's always the chance that someone might find this...vaguely...hopeful. Some young reader, whose feeling like, damn I just can't get it together, or the world is so confusing or I just can't get how/why shit is the way it is, and what do I need to DO about it...what do I need to DO to make it so that I feel a little less miserable or confused or disheartened about this particular place and moment in time?

To which I'd say: you don't need to DO anything. Or (rather): just continue "doing" what you do. If you don't like what you do, then do something else and/or find a way to do something you DO enjoy doing. And WHILE you're doing....whatever it CHOOSE to be doing, try ALSO to (simultaneously) add a little more kindness, a little more compassion, a little more patience for people. Not just other people. ALL people...that includes yourself. 

Do that. Just that. Not a lot...just that. 

Understanding will come. Perspective will come. Wisdom will come.

All, right. That's enough. Much thanks to all of you for your indulgence.
: )

Monday, September 18, 2023

Maps And Distance

Driving home from Montana this weekend...a return trip I was making for the third time in the year 2023...I was again struck with wonder by the majestic landscape that stretches along Interstate 90, from the Gem State of Idaho to the Cascade Mountain range. Just incredible vistas of rolling hills and rocky cliffs, forests and mountains, the Gorge, the mighty Columbia, and miles and miles of nothing between the small towns and communities.

Per my Google Maps, the total distance between Missoula and my home in Seattle is approximately 484 miles, in a (more-or-less) straight line, along a well-maintained highway. About 24 days of hiking, if one considers a 20 mile per day march of the typical D&D party. That's a long, long distance.

I use the Pacific Northwest as the setting for AD&D campaign these days. While I've probably mentioned (many times) that I'm rather terrible at drawing maps...especially wilderness or "outdoor" maps...what I probably have not mentioned is that since switching over to actual (real world) geography, I don't even bother trying to do "hex maps." Never was much good at them anyway, and thanks to Ye Old Google Earth, I can chart distances just fine with the laptop and an internet connection. And with those distances (and being able to zoom in on the terrain) I can calculate travel times, resource depletion, wandering encounter rolls, etc.

Who needs hexes?

But here's the thing...the real thing: I know "hex crawling" is a thing: so many internet videos and blog posts discussing it, talking about best practices, extolling the virtues of using hexes to have "true" "sandbox" (i.e. open world) play. People love their hex crawling wilderness adventures...people want those hexes for the play it facilitates. Huge, multi-hundred page supplements/adventures have been published adding "interesting encounters" to each hexagonal shape on the hex map. What a fun, what a useful resource to have at one's fingertips, right?

Thing is: those hexes are too big. Too big to have "one interesting thing" in each one. I don't even care what scale you're using...six mile or twenty or 24 (B/X suggests 6 mile for small scale maps and 24 mile hexes for large). Folks need an idea of just how much space fits into an area this size.

We're all relatively familiar with the Keep on the Borderlands, right? Has a wilderness map in it, remember? One of the complaints I've read about B2 over the years is the tiny size of the outdoor area: 5200 yards by 4000 yards (that's about 3 miles by 2.25 miles). Even following the meandering road, the titular Keep is roughly two-and-a-half miles away from the Caves of Chaos...that's right next door! Heck you could fit multiple B2 wilderness pages inside a single 6-mile hex; there's too much crammed into that tiny, tiny space to be "reasonable" is the protest.

Okay, here's a screen shot from Google Earth of a portion of King County, Washington, including much of Seattle. The gold box on the screen is roughly the same size as the wilderness map in module B2. The northern border lines up with the northern city limits of Seattle proper (at 145th street); the southern border lines up with North 85th Street, two blocks from my home in the Greenwood neighborhood of north Seattle.  You could fit something like 9-10 "B2s" within the city limits of Seattle.

Now, I'll give you a close up of the area:

I'm sorry I can't provide more detail, but this area is huge: absolutely enormous. Hills and buildings (not to mention forested parks) block line of sight more than a few blocks in any direction. The area contains multiple schools, libraries, churches, a large hospital campus, movie theater, numerous "big box" stores, supermarkets, parking lots, large cemeteries, the largest shopping mall in north Seattle ( the Seattle Kraken Ice Complex), several lakes, and numerous parks, motels, businesses, strip malls, and TWO 18 hole golf courses. Two major arterials (Highway 99 and Interstate 5) divide the area into three vertical strips, each one with distinctly different character. And it's mostly residential: thousands of people live in this area, in houses with yards, duplexes, condos, and apartment buildings (in addition to at least half a dozen retirement/assisted living complexes), as well as homeless tent encampments and RVs parked under bridges and overpasses.

I am intimately familiar with this region of Seattle...I've spent most of my daily life within it and, perhaps, an additional mile radius for the bulk of the last 26 years. And even so there are giant swaths of the area that I don't know, have never visited, and have no clue about. I walk my neighborhood a lot, but I don't usually go more than 15 blocks in any particular direction without a car. And many areas are simply inaccessible by foot. 

It would be easy to drop SEVERAL dragon dens in an area this size...assuming enough food to sustain such alpha predators. Which shouldn't be too tough: the 1910 census showed Seattle to have more than 237 thousand people living within the city limits, and that was long before modern refrigeration technology. The entire population of B2, humanoid monsters included, amounts to only a few hundred...and it's not like the area around the Keep is portrayed as some sterile, desert region.

I will reiterate: this is an area three miles long from north to south. The Isle of Dread (module X1) is 144 miles long across its north-south axis. That's the same, straight-line distance as from Seattle to Portland, Oregon. That's a ridiculously huge amount of wilderness. Only an idiot would attempt to walk through the forests and mountains between those two cities (I-5 actually takes a longer, more circuitous route bending towards the coast). And yet a party of six to eight adventurers are going to try exploring the interior of a dinosaur-infested island with thick jungle and active volcanoes? Really?

Driving back along I-90 Sunday morning, I couldn't help but wonder what it would be like to try traversing such a distance without the aid of the beautiful highway I was zipping along on at 80ish miles per hour. Insanity, I concluded. Miles and miles of wilderness...probably extremely hostile wilderness, especially in the heart of summer and the dead of winter. We don't account for SEASONS in our overland exploration...mountain passes are simply impossible with heavy snow (and spring rains cause avalanches and rock falls). But long before reaching the mountains, all but the most prepared (or fortunate) groups trying to cross the state would probably perish from starvation in the dry landscape.  Lewis & Clark certainly never tried it...they crossed into Oregon from Idaho and travelled down the Columbia River to the coast.


We should not underestimate the distance of distance. I'm sure that sounds silly, but when you're talking about a lost temple, a ruined fortress, or a monster lair (the usual "dungeon" sites)...such places can hide very easily within a landscape. Ye Old Internet tells me most medieval cities took up less than one square mile in area..,though I'd guess that's just the walled perimeter and that the surrounding farms extended much farther. But so long as your local dungeon isn't spewing forth hostile predators looking for townfolk prey on a regular basis, there's no reason such a place couldn't be relatively close to the PCs' "home" community.  

Just my thoughts of the last few days; thanks for reading.
; )

Tuesday, September 12, 2023


Mmm. SO...I've been even busier than usual. Yes, the school year has started for my kids. Yes, we are in the thick of the soccer season (four teams, one of which I'm coaching). Yes, we're also trying to have a last few family outings with friends and such as the summer winds to a close.

But in addition, I'm sill dealing with the barrage of death issues from the last few months. My brother and I have been working daily to clean out my mom's house. It's a fair-sized house with 45 years of accumulated "stuff:" both treasure and trash (we took 2300# of junk to the dump over the course of last week, and that was just the garage). This week my family will be on the road from Wednesday (tomorrow) till Sunday, going to Montana for my grandmother's funeral and graveside service. Just a lot to do. 

*sigh*  Oh, yeah. And my dog's not doing great.

So, what could cause me to sit down and post to Ye Old Gaming blog, when I have so many other things occupying my mind? Like how to get my homeless, alcoholic brother to fix his shit and get to Montana for the funeral of our clan matriarch? Like filing an appeal for my mother's termination of medical insurance March 31st when she died April 22nd? What could get me so riled up that I must blog?

Well, actually, I did have some interesting (to me, anyway) observations about spatial distance and maps in D&D that I kind of wanted to jot down before I forgot about them. But even those have gone out the window...for the nonce.

No...over on a particular D&D discord I frequent, someone posted an excerpt from the latest WotC adventure offering for 5E: a reboot of Lost Mine of Phandelver with a few modifications and several added levels of content. The excerpt is with regard to (I presume) some of the additional material which has a magical curse-life effect transforming the PCs into monsters, should the bad guys succeed at their nefarious plans. The text then adds the following instructional (boxed) sidebar:


Before you use the character transformation rules presented in this section, check with each player to determine if they are open to their character experiencing physically transformative effects. A player will not miss game benefits if they choose not to use these rules for their character.

What. The. Hell. Are you F'ing kidding me?

Now, before I get worked up into a lather, allow me to add the disclaimer that this blurb came from an internet source, and so perhaps (hopefully) it is completely manufactured. Maybe I've been hoodwinked here, in other words, by a person who just likes to stir up hornets' nests. It was not posted for my sole benefit, but the folks on that particular discord tend to be a caustic and reactionary bunch that like poking bears. So maybe I'm a dupe. The book isn't even available for order as of yet...although it is possible to get "early access" to the digital version.

BUT...assuming this IS accurate:

Just what the F are we playing here?

Consent?! "Consent" for the DM to inflict a curse on the player characters? "Consent" for the DM to apply a fail state in the case of failure? To an imaginary character? A fucking piece of paper?! Are you shitting me?!

Do you need to obtain "consent" in 5E to KILL a player character?! To poison it? To apply level drain? To give the monsters a surprise round?!  "That's not fair!"  NO...FUCK YOU. 

We are still playing DUNGEONS & DRAGONS, right? Right?! There's still a Dungeon Master, right? You players understand what you're signing up for when you sit down to play the game, right? Have you not played games before? 

No, you do not get to "give consent." Not at my table. That's not how D&D works. The Dungeon Master is the Dungeon Master; the Dungeon Master does not need to ask for consent before applying a deserved failure state to your character. Your character is not you. I am not forcing YOU, player, to transform into ANYthing. I am not shooting YOU full of arrows or dropping YOU in a spiked pit or a vat of acid. It is not YOU getting your limb chewed off by a displacer beast. 

Grow the fuck up. Or don't play the game.

I understand that there is a lot of f'd up crap floating around the internet these days, with regard to EVERYthing, not just D&D. I read this article the other day that had issue with the "fantasy racism" of the original Phandelver, stating:
Lost Mines, unfortunately, falls into a trap that D&D has only just begun to deal with, which is the deep-seated issues of fantasy racism present in the genre. Tribes of evil, scheming savages surviving by raiding and banditry like the Cragmaw goblins and the Many-Arrows orc tribe as presented echo malicious stereotypes of all kinds throughout history.
Which is incredibly stupid on so many levels...but it's just an internet opinion. Everyone's got opinions...the blog post you're reading right now is another. And I don't have a problem with people having opinions, or stating their perspective, regardless of how wrong-headed or obtuse might be. Opinions can (usually) be safely disregarded unless they're coming from someone with whom we have a practical relationship (for example: a player at my gaming table).

But not an opinion. This blurb comes from instructional text found in an official product of the flagship company responsible for the manufacture and distribution of this thing called "Dungeons & Dragons."  And it's not presented as some optional rule, but as a procedural element of play: "PLAYER CONSENT IS REQUIRED." Explicit, emphasized text. 

And that's not Dungeons & Dragons. That is...something else.

There are lots of RPGs on the market that aren't D&D. LOTS. Many provide players with a greater degree of authority and control over the narrative structure that makes up (the bulk of) game play from what one finds in the game of D&D. They make for a different play experience, fun in its own way for those who choose to play those games. 

D&D doesn't work like this...not even 5E. I've read the 5E DMG; no where in the book does it tell the DM to obtain the consent of the players before applying some sort of effect or "status" to their characters. The DM is still in charge of running the game, not the players. Traditionally, the standard way for players to express their disapproval of the way a game is run is to WALK AWAY. For the most part, it's a pretty efficient method of ensuring you don't get stuck with a DM you dislike; I've walked away from several DMs over the years. 

[EDIT: for the record, the word "consent" appears exactly zero times in the 5E DMG]

So, anyway... This is really bad. Unlike some of my fellow geezers, it doesn't bother me that people want to debate the morality of killing orcs or that officially elves are, well, even weirder then they were. Heck, it doesn't even annoy me that people prefer different editions of D&D than myself...that's fine, you play yours, I'll play mine, and we'll both houserule the thing as it befits our table. 

But this kind of precedent is bad. Undermining the authority of the DM is bad. Prioritizing a CHARACTER over play or system or rules is bad. It is setting foot on a path that leads eventually to dissolution of the dissolution of the game as a game.  

This was not well-thought out by the designers. 

And while I'm sure a lot of my readers will say, Oh JB, you're so silly! Who cares? What impact will it even have? Consider that this is found (if my source is correct) in the new reboot of Phandelver.  Not a sequel to Phandelver, but a rewrite of the original...the original adventure included with the D&D Starter Set. That is: the box set being used to teach NEW people how to play D&D.  

This new attitude...this new PARADIGM of how D&D is to be what will inform the next generation of D&D players. And the generation that follows. And the generation that follows. And the company has done an incredible job of NOT "walking back" the various design mistakes they've made over the years, simply streamlining them and modifying them in a fashion that retains the "flavor" of all that's gone before while making it work with whatever new cobbled system is being presented to the public.  So consider that if they (WotC) take this tack, then this is the way we can expect the game to develop, going forward.

Required consent? Really? To transform your character into a monster? What about to transform your character into a corpse? Or a pile of hot ash? 

What was my job again? Dungeon Master? Or dancing monkey?

No. When you sit at my table, YOU are GIVING CONSENT to abide by MY authority as the Dungeon Master. Period. You don't want to give consent to me? Fine...take a hike. I have other people who want to play. 

No...I will not go quietly into the night. I can imagine the Powers That Be happening across my blog post on some random web surfing and saying "Bah. Who cares what this imbecile has to say? We don't want his old way of thinking anyway...he'll either come around or he'll die out like all those other geezers are dying...Gygax, Arneson, etc." Yep, they're right...I will die, eventually. The last eight months has shown me just how quickly the life-spark can go out in people's eyes. I am very well acquainted with mortality these days.

But I'm 49 (50 next month). Living right, I can probably get another 35ish years out of this old body...years that will still find me playing the same brand of D&D that I love. You think I'm going to roll over and play 5E or 6E or "One D&D" or any of that nonsense? No. I've got back-ups of my core books, new prints that should be good through the end of my life...hell, I'm still using books that were printed in the 1970s and they've held up just fine. These new ones should hold up for my kids even after I'm gone.

Does WotC think their brand of D&D is going to outlive me? Heck, by my reckoning 5E hasn't even outshined AD&D's original run of 12 years. We'll compare where they are 20 years from now...hopefully, I'll be passing on my passion to my grandchildren. Regardless, I will continue to play in the way the game was originally intended to be played. 

"Consent is Required?" Not at my table, pal. Kiss off.

[apologies for the cursing in this a little worked up there]