This week I had an entirely new and exciting experience. While I have some experience exploring castles and fighting giant spiders in other (read: digital) worlds, I can now say I’ve done it in the Dungeons & Dragons world, or, to be specific, the Pathfinder world. After a recent lecture on RPG’s in our Analog Gaming class sparked some interest in the genre, some classmates and I, all of varying levels of experience with Pathfinder, managed to put together an interesting cast of characters for a one-shot campaign.
In case you’re not familiar with RPG’s, Pathfinder is an adaptation of the Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 system. This system defines a variety of rules and thematic elements for role-playing, such as the abilities and culture of each race (eg. Elf, Orc) and class (eg. Wizard, Rogue), statistics of creatures you might encounter, basic rules for how to roll dice to perform actions, and much more. Each player creates a character with a variety of skills and stats (eg. Strength, Wisdom), as well as personality, and then the team sets of on a campaign. A campaign is a story of sorts that is mediated by a Game Master, or GM. The GM narrates a scenario, throughout which the players can make choices about which actions they take, usually accompanied by a dice roll to determine how successful the action is. This entire scenario can take place in the minds of the players and with notes on paper, but in the Pathfinder set we were using there was a grid to draw maps and player statuettes to track movement, which I found really helped visualize the story.
Since each player had either no or little experience with Pathfinder, and since we wanted to save a little time, we decided to work with pre-set characters and modify them slightly (eg. rolling our own stats, choosing alignments). We settled on playing the 4 core classes, fighter, wizard, rogue, and cleric, so that we’d have a well balanced team, which was especially important in our combat heavy campaign. Since we didn’t spend much time with the character creation process, the nuances of our characters emerged as we battled through our mission.
I was completely enthralled with the whole experience, and took photographic note of the whole story in order to preserve it here. If you’re more interested in my opinion of the game and reflection on the experience than the story, you can keep scrolling to the last section (titled The Experience).
We started out by deciding that our characters were a group of travelling performers, looking to make some bucks in a new town. Our star performer, Cal, the wizard, wasn’t doing so well on her performance rolls, so it was up to my cleric, Kyra, to sway the crowd into liking us. Thus began a game-long competitive relationship between the two spellcasters in the group. Thankfully, Kyra’s speech was very convincing, and the group was approached by the blacksmith to go on a mission. A castle nearby had been ruined in a recent earthquake. A man from the Pathfinders Society had gone to survey what remained, but had failed to return. We were tasked with finding this man and recovering what we could from the castle.
Since we had nothing else to do (our performance gig obviously wasn’t going very well), we set off to the castle. As we approached, our first taste of combat came about as we ran into a pack of wild dogs. Being a bit rusty in combat, we all approached timidly, except for Val, our fighter, who finished off most of the dogs, with the help of Jamie, our rogue (and not so much help from Kyra’s lousy slingshot).
As we entered the castle, the character dynamics had an interesting chance to play out. There were two routes we could take, one apparently clear, the other filled with spider webs. As we argued over which routes to take, it became clear that our characters (most with Chaotic Neutral alignment) were quite individualistic. Kyra, as a lover of animals, was determined to go talk with the spider we were sure lurked in the castle. Evenually, she was convinced to explore the other route, but on coming around the circular castle to the other side of the spider room, she led the way in… and instantly regretted it when she realized she couldn’t talk to the spider and had now blocked the doorway from everyone else from helping her. Some wounds were taken, and relationships aggravated, but lessons were learned.
After defeating the spider, we approached the staircase to begin exploring the upper floors. Here emerged the impatience of our wizard, Cal, who began rummaging around without checking for dangers, and was set upon by some troglodytes. Thus began our dungeon crawl through the upper floors, where a new enemy awaited in almost every room. We managed to make it through more lizards and bat swarms without any significant wounds, and even some undead skeletons which were decimated by my cleric as she discovered her strength (and the awesome Channel Energy ability), and ditched the lousy slingshot. We naturally fell into a routine for attack, with the most powerful character, the fighter Val, attacking first, my unusually strong cleric, Kyra, joining for brief periods of attack and retreat for healing, our rogue, Jamie, eventually flanking for some sneak attacks, and our wizard performing some distant attacks.
More enemies were approached on the 4th floor, but Jamie, who had began to upset our trust by selfishly holding back on attacking in battles, decided he would try to protect us by testing his bluffing abilities on a group of troglodytes. His attempts to distract them with promises of sacred relics and gold downstairs weren’t appealing to them, and they attempted to kill us and take our own valuables instead. Having practiced our fighting strategies on their companions, they were easily scared away, but ran right into the claws of a giant frog, which was a bit more laborious to defeat.
After finally clearing the troglodytes and frog. We stumbled into the chamber of a troglodyte lieutenant, performing torturous spells on a human prisoner. He appeared to draw strength from these spells, even growing in size. After a lengthy battle, he was finally destroyed, and the prisoner could be healed and awoken. He revealed himself to be the Pathfinder scout we were sent to find. He had been captured by the troglodytes for a plot to summon more evil beings of some kind into the world. The leader was upstairs, and time was running out.
We left our new companion downstairs to rest and emerged into the leader’s lair. We were faced not only by this huge druid troglodyte, but his crocodile companion. This huge monster was the focus of our attention for a while, as his attacks were powerful enough to knock a few of us unconscious multiple times. Thankfully, Kyra had saved up enough spells and scrolls to keep everyone from dying, while Val, our fighter, attempted to take out the leader. As we killed the crocodile companion, and were getting closer to defeating the leader, he summoned a spider swarm to attack us. Our wizard, Cal, was the only one with magical attacks that could defeat the swarm, but with her severely weakened, we had to focus on defeating the leader in order to disperse the swarm.
After a valiant effort with some serious wounds taken, we managed to defeat the leader and prevent his evil plots without any deaths (much to our GM’s chagrin). After taking some time to heal, and collecting treasure from his lair, we celebrated at the tavern with the now recovered Pathfinder scout and the blacksmith who sent us on our mission. Having proved our capabilities, we were offered entrance into the Pathfinder society, and could put our street performance days behind us.
I loved playing this game, as it was a great balance between theme, strategy, and luck. I was constantly on edge whenever a dice was rolled, and loved how those rolls could lead to unusual consequences , such as a misinformed perception check that led characters straight into a troglodyte’s ritual circle, or an unusually persuasive pitch to a blacksmith that led him to hail us as heroes. These situations made me carefully consider decisions to perform actions, and begin to develop ideas of strategy.
Although engaging, our campaign wasn’t very heavy on story, which I regret in hindsight. However, this did give us a better chance to learn more about the mechanics of the game, by testing things out and asking questions that a more strict role-playing scenario might have allowed. Our GM was very generous in helping us with this kind of play style. He would wait for a while to let us figure out strategy on our own, but if it was clear that we weren’t getting it then he’d drop extra hints, or give us some extra information on our perception checks. The only downside of our simplistic playing style was that it got quite repetitive, especially given the standard dungeon crawl nature of the campaign. We pretty much just got to test out our combat abilities, and had very few choices to make, but perhaps if we continue this story we can test out our other abilities as well.
As is clear from the campaign description above, our rules-based play style did lend itself to some narrative. Mistakes turned into running gags that turned into personality traits; for example, Cal the wizard’s impatience developed from a habit of rushing into rooms without checking for traps. Our own personal interactions became our characters relationships, such as the competition between Kyra and Cal whenever we disagreed over an option.
In later games, I would love to delve more into my character and story. Those moments when we created story beyond what was written in the campaign, as small as they were, were very satisfying, and I’d like to have a stronger base to create more scenes like that. I went in without knowing much more beyond the basics of the Pathfinder lore, and I think that a better understanding of all the natural features and cultures of that world would allow for more creativity in playing the game. However, I still see myself being more of a strategic than improvisational player. My interest in character development lies not just in the backstory, but in gaining a better understanding of the pros and cons of certain classes, skills, and etc. On a group level, I suspect that any future games we play will focus more on achieving our goals together than being immersed in the fantasy world, given my inability to remember the exact plot of the evil troglodyte leader but clear memory of the interpersonal dynamics of our team.
I can’t write about D&D and its associated games without mentioning their reputation of being un-inclusive. Having little experience with the community surrounding the game, I can’t yet speak to any problems there, I can only examine the game itself. While I noticed a few troubling tropes from the high fantasy genre, particularly in some busty statuettes and other artwork, my overall experience was pretty great, which speaks to the influence that the unique role-playing group has on the atmosphere. Since the character creation is so variable, I also happened to pick as my pre-set character someone who broke a few tropes; Kyra was a woman of color who was dressed in a quite practical, non-sexualized outfit, was obviously an intelligent, trained cleric, and happened to be one of the best fighters in the group. Although having a female cleric may play into the feminization of compassionate work, I deliberately chose that class because I like emphasizing the importance of “feminine” traits while also recognizing that they can be accompanied by physical strength and general badassery. Obviously, more familiarity with the Pathfinder universe is needed before making any sweeping conclusions, but I think that with the right group of people and the right campaign, a game of Pathfinder can be an inclusive experience, due to its very personalized nature.
In sum, this experience will obviously be quite different for each individual, but because it is so customizable it can be quite accessible in terms of theme. Less accessible are the rules of the game. Without an experienced GM, our characters would have taken forever to set up, and the game would have been slow as we paused to look up rules in the multiple rule-books. A lack of an experienced GM is actually the main factor that has prevented me from playing RPG’s in past. Now that tabletop games are becoming more popular, and more open communities, such as the one in my Analog Games class, are being created, I hope that more experienced players encourage lots of new players to join in on the experience.