Thursday, December 5, 2013

Pathfinder RPG

Adventure!  Mystery!  Treasure!  Snack foods!

All of these and more can be found in the bountiful realms of the human imagination.  Since the 1970's, nothing inspires the nerdy human mind to new heights of fantasy than tabletop role-playing games (RPGs.)  The first and most well-known of all RPGs is, of course, Dungeons and Dragons.  Rich in history, often steeped in controversy from both the gamer community and mainstream world, D&D is the granddaddy of them all.  D&D is currently in its 4th (and most polarizing) edition, and its publishers are in production and playtesting of the next edition (called D&D Next...)

My history with RPGs is spotty.  I have enjoyed playing them since I first discovered that there was a paper-and-pencil ancestor to my favorite video game RPGs like Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior.  In high school, I played D&D (3rd edition) and another now out-of-print RPG called TORG.  The game was run by, funnily enough, a teacher at my school.  I didn't ever take a class with this teacher, but we all had a great time playing the game when he ran it with us.  After that game concluded, I didn't have a game group for a few years.  In college, I played a few times, but our momentum stalled, and I was again gameless.  After graduating college, I wasn't able to devote the hours of time required for a good game with my full-time career.  This time, we are playing a D&D descendant called Pathfinder, and I am running the game.

Running games, what does that mean?  How do you play a video game RPG with paper, pencils, and dice?  The systems vary in their numerical structure, but all RPGs have a common structure.  Each game has a group of player characters (PCs) who take on the role of an imaginary character.  Each player has a sheet with the numerical and aesthetic details of his or her character.  The player makes choices and guides the character through the imaginary world, fighting battles, collecting treasure, charming handsome strangers, getting into drinking contests in seedy taverns, and literally anything else the players can dream up.  The imaginary world through which the characters adventure is set up and run by one of the players, known as the Dungeon Master (DM) in D&D and just Game Master (GM) in most other games.  Dungeon Master is copyrighted by the publishers of D&D and quite retro feeling, so GM is more often used as a universal term in RPGs.  The GM describes the scene to the players and plays the role of everyone else in the game world not played by the players.  The handsome strangers, fearsome monsters, nosy barkeeps with information for sale, intergalactic space pirates (why not!?), and the environment itself are all played by the GM.


GM: You find yourself in a dark room, there is a door on the opposite wall.
PC1:  What kind of door?
GM:  Plain wood with a lever handle.
PC2:  I'll check the door.
GM:  It's locked.
PC3:  My character says, "Outta me way!  I'm breakin' that door down!"

"Don't those games use all sorts of crazy dice and stuff?"  Yes, they do.  In the above situation, how would we know if PC3's brash character would successfully break down the door?  When playing make-believe as kids, we would automatically assume the character succeeded and adventure on.  RPGs give us a bit more structure to heighten the dramatic tension.  How are we to take both the skill of the character and the element of random chance into effect in our team storytelling?  Character statistics and dice- that's how.

Dice and character sheets are seen with a battle map game board playing Pathfinder RPG
Dice, pencils, and character sheets

In the above situation involving the door, we would have to check a few things.  The skill and strength of the character trying to break down the door would be represented by a number.  The more skillful and strong the character is, the higher those numbers would be.  We must also consider the resistance given by the door.  Is is well-built or shoddy?  Is it barred and reinforced from the other side?  The GM must consider these facts and assigns a difficulty score for hitting and breaking the door.  Random elements come into play with the dice.  To resolve a situation like this, the PC would roll a die (in this case a 20-sided die, or d20) and add his or her relevant skill and strength scores to the roll.  The GM would then check that result against the difficulty number of the door, and verbally give the PC the result.  Here are some possible resolutions to the above situation.

Resolution 1

GM:  Roll a d20 and add your strength modifier.
PC3:  I rolled a 10, strength is 3, gives me a 13
GM:  Your character takes a good whack at the door with the axe, which groans and cracks, but doesn't quite give in.  Your character things it might give with one more hit like that.
PC1:  My character says, "Maybe you should pay more visits to the weight room than the tavern!"

Resolution 2

PC3:  I rolled 18, nice!  Strength is 3, gives me a 21!
GM:  Your character gets a good windup and a big swing at the door.  The door, on impact, gives a satisfying crunch and flies off its hinges into the passage beyond.
PC2:  Way to go!  My character jumps ahead to the passage, what does she see?

Resolution 3

PC:  Oh no!  I rolled a 2!  Strength is 3, gives me 5...
GM:  [giggles to self] Your character takes a big swing, but slips on some loose bits of stone flooring.  The axe thunks harmlessly off the door, before flying out of your hand as you fall to the floor.
All Players:  [Much laughter and ribbing directed at PC3]

This kind of team storytelling gives us infinite chances for edge-of-seat tension, high drama, and hilarious hijinks.  The game system can be quite complicated, allowing rules and resolutions for almost any kind of situation in which characters can find themselves.  We are playing the game weekly for 3-plus hours, and loving every minute of it.

An RPG battle map with player characters and enemies
The Battle Map

A character figure picks up a stone representing a hat stolen from an enemy pirate captain
A character figure who just collected a new hat from the enemy pirate captain

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