Last Saturday was the second meeting of our Pathfinder group, but the first in which we dove into real gameplay. The previous week was largely devoted to character creation, though we did play through a brief practice scenario. This is my first time playing Pathfinder, and while I have played a few games of Dungeons and Dragons (perhaps 3 or 4) in my day, I still very much consider myself a ‘noob’ when it comes to this kind of game.
Let me begin with a word on character creation. I’ve played my fair share of console RPGs, but this takes things to a new level. Even some of the more advanced systems (Fallout 3 and Final Fantasy X come to mind) don’t seem anywhere near as complicated as making a Pathfinder character. I suppose, however, that this is largely due to the fact that the complexities of ability scores, skills, and other stats must all be managed by hand, while videogames can of course automate this whole process (with hidden digital analogs to skill checks, attack rolls, and the like). I know of some software alternatives to manual character creation (at least for D&D), but I found that the experience of making a character by hand is surprisingly engaging. It gives players access to a deeper level of game mechanics than is available in videogames, connecting them directly to the mechanisms underlying how characters interact with the game world. This extends to all aspects of gameplay, and while all the dice-rolling, comparisons of attack rolls against AC stats, and so on can at times be monotonous, there is something fresh and intriguing about having all gameplay mechanics visible on the surface. It’s becoming rather clear to me now why this game was selected for class. Now of course Pathfinder is based on rules developed before computerized automation of complex game mechanics was even technically possible, so its rule structure was a matter of necessity, not pure design. Nevertheless, for someone like myself who grew up playing videogames, it has been a surprisingly enlightening experience.
Back to our first real game session. We’re beginning our campaign with an official Pazio adventure path, Rise of the Runelords, a good choice considering that both myself and our gamemaster, Jackie, are both new to the game. Seeing how we’re still learning the intricacies of combat in Pathfinder, our first session was almost entirely occupied by two fairly simple encounters (fighting groups of goblins, to be specific). What were the two most important lessons of these first battles? First, randomness is a huge part of this game. Despite tuning my character specifically to being an effective archer, I ended up hitting my target only once across both encounters (dealing a paltry two hit points of damage). I could have done a whole lot better in principle, but had really bad luck with my rolls. Presumably this is in large part because my character (like the others) is only at first level right now, and will grow more powerful with time, likely becoming less sensitive to the randomness of dice rolls. But I imagine this will come hand in hand with encountering more powerful enemies (though the GM obviously has a lot of discretion here), so I’m curious to see how the game balances keeping things challenging while still giving players the sense of becoming more powerful. The second lesson learned was that combat is just plain complex. I’ll admit it was slow-going to the point of sucking a lot of the fun out of it at times (though I look forward to it improving as we become more comfortable with the rules). There’s HP to track, initiative governing the order of attacks, and a slew of other rules to keep in mind. In theory, the GM bears most of the responsibility here, but since it’s her first time in the role, keeping track of everything became a bit of a team effort. This did really emphasize to me just how much responsibility the GM takes on in a game of Pathfinder. This makes the game incredibly flexible, but has the unfortunate side effect of giving it a steep learning curve, especially for the GM. Luckily, two of our number (Mark and Travis) have experience in the GM department, so we should make steady headway.