Please note that this entry covers two sessions.
As the semester draws to a close we find ourselves with a new gamemaster, Travis, and with him a rather new style of gameplay. The focus of things has shifted away from combat encounters and more onto adventuring and exploration. This first of our two session with him, in fact, was our first ever in which we didn’t engage in combat even once (Well, that isn’t technically true, since we did at one point begin a combat encounter with some manner of swamp beast. It turned out early in the encounter, however, that he (it?) was not actually hostile. The bulk of our play session was actually spent conversing with the brute, in what seemed to be futile attempt to figure out precisely what his motivations were and if he could aid us in our current adventure in any way.) The second session did include more combat, but against less traditional enemies (giant leaches and a very angry sentient vine).
I’m not going to go into further detail on our final sessions, however, as this is likely my last entry and I want to use it to make some closing comments on my semester-spanning Pathfinder experience.
So, after all this time playing Pathfinder (the first time I’ve played a tabletop RPG with any regularity), what are my closing thoughts? What I find my self thinking about the most is that it represents a very unique gaming experience that harkens back to childhood games of make-believe. In fact, thinking of it in this way raises some interesting ideas that I think are worth bringing up here. I’m making this argument without any empirical evidence (and would be curious to hear your thoughts on it, Ted), but I’m going to attempt it nonetheless.
There seems to be an an evolution of the types of games we play as children, progressing from completely open-ended make-believe games to progressively more rule-structured, organized affairs. Schoolyard games seem to follow (very roughly) an evolution that cuts out fantasy and freedom in favor of added structure, moving from things like pure, unstructured make-believe, to more organized role-playing like ‘cops and robbers’, and then on to organized sports games without any fantasy elements. Now of course I make no claims that this applies to every child, nor that this pattern is anything close to set in stone, but in general there does seem to be a move away from fantasy and role-playing elements in the games we play as we ‘grow up’.
I’m painting with some pretty broad strokes here, but I would argue that as kids grow up, they are conditioned to engage in social activities that supplant creativity and imagination in favor of organization and order. Consider two examples: playing on a soccer team and playing a make-believe game of knights and dragons with some friends. Both are social activities, and clearly games, but the first (in my mind at least) is far more directed at preparing kids to work in a rigidly-structured team environment. One could make the argument, then, that games like organized sports (and highly rule-structured social games in general) are more ‘practical’ in terms of life preparation, and I wonder if this implicitly responsible for some of the stigma against fantasy gaming.
But even when we grow up, we maintain the urge to ‘pretend’, to roleplay, to imagine ourselves in the shoes of an exciting hero or heroine. We’ve always done this, but traditionally it has been a personal activity (i.e. reading novels) or only minimally social (watching a movie). But this changed with the development of tabletop RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons (which is essentially the same thing as Pathfinder). These games, I think, represent our desire to go back to our childhood games of make-believe, to make pretending a social activity again.
Unfortunately making a fantasy game like Pathfinder or D&D that still maintains some sort of systematic rule-structure is necessarily complex, and this explains the less-than-widespread popularity of such games. But now that videogame developers are able to build RPG and fantasy elements into their games in a more accessible way, it seems that ‘make believe’ is regaining popularity. We still see that videogames in this genre tend to be single-player, but more and more we find RPG elements sneaking their way into games that have not had them in the past. I’ve seen this phenomenon mention in Travis and Jim Cummings’ work, but I believe that this desire to turn make-believe into a social activity again represents a new piece in the puzzle.
I hope that his final entry has not become too rambling, but in reflecting on these ideas and actually getting them down on paper, I’ve come to realize that games like Pathfinder hold a very special place in the evolution of play, and I’m happy that I had the chance to experience one of them.