Sunday, October 16, 2011

Destination: Pathfinder

Last week, I went into some detail about the history of D&D, both from a corporate and personal perspective.  If you haven’t read that yet, you need to, or there’s not much point in reading this.  Not that there’s ever much point, of course.  But even less point than usual.  So go read that before proceeding.

Okay, so remember I told you what happens when someone tries to take a free piece of software and make it proprietary?  Someone forks it.  Netscape was forked to make Mozilla (which begat Firefox).  AT&T’s original Unix was forked to make BSD when they claimed System V was proprietary.  And, when you take an open game and say, this next version isn’t open any more, someone’s bound to fork it.  And that someone was Paizo.

Now, you may recall from last week that Paizo was the company that Hasbro spun off from WotC to handle the continuing publication of Dragon magazine (and its cousin, Dungeon).  So it was, originally, a small publishing company with a very narrow focus.  Obviously you can’t build an entire business off publishing two magazines with a limited appeal.  (Note that Dragon—and, to a lesser extent, Dungeon—had a very wide appeal to players of D&D, but of course that’s still a pretty small percentage of the total population.)  So they worked on expanding that.  Remember how I said that one of the reasons the OGL was a good idea was that games need ancillary products like adventures in order to flourish, but publishing adventures is too unprofitable for a larger company? so smaller companies can take on that task and fill out the ecosystem?  Well, all of a sudden Paizo was a smaller company, and their business was publishing.  Why not publish adventures for D&D?

So they did.  And they decided to publish regular adventures.  One of the annoying things about adventures is that they’re always for “adventurers of X-Y levels.”  So, what do you do if your characters aren’t those levels?  Wouldn’t it be cooler if there was an adventure that started out for first level characters, and then, as you gained levels, there’d be another adventure for higher level characters, in the same world, and then another adventure for even higher level characters, and so on up through the highest level characters that people normally play before they get bored and start over at first level again?  Sure it would.  And you, of course, would want a subscription to those adventures, which should come out every month or two, just when the GM is getting ready to prepare for the next installment of her campaign.  And, hey: who better to come up with a subscription to adventures than the company who’s already publishing D&D magazines?

Paizo called them “adventure paths.”

They tried a few other magazines, but they didn’t work that well.  They expanded to producing GM products, and selling miniatures, and a web storefront, and that was working okay.  But when Hasbro came out with 4e and proclaimed that Dragon would be moving to online-only content and that Paizo’s license was just ... cancelled ... well, that was a pretty hefty blow.

So Paizo had to figure out what to do, and figure it out fast.  Possibly their adventure paths could keep them afloat, along with all the other things they had going on, but that was problematic too.  Because these would now be adventure paths for a “dead” game: D&D 3e.  They couldn’t publish 4e adventures, because the 4e license didn’t allow it.  Now, many people will tell you that it doesn’t matter when a company cancels a game, or comes out with a new, incompatible version.  You still have your old copy, right?  It’s not like WotC is going to come to your house and burn all your 3e books!  (I can’t tell you how many times I read that moronic piece of pablum in gaming blogs and forums.)  You can keep playing 3e all you want ... they say.

But the truth is that a dead game loses ground quickly.  There are no new expansions to attract the old fans, and nothing whatsoever to attract new ones.  In fact, if you’re just getting into a game, why would you start with a game (or a game version) that’s been discontinued?  Doesn’t make sense.  New products will come out for other games, or for the newer versions, that will leave you behind.  Technology will move on, advances in systems will be made, and you ... you will be left, eventually, playing a 20-year-old game with your two other curmudgeon friends while everyone else laughs and calls you “luddite” under their breath.  And as far as subscriptions to adventure paths for such a game ... well, let’s just say they’d be “shrinking” at best.

So what could Paizo do?  They had all this 3e/3.5e material floating around, and they wanted to keep producing it ad infinitum.  There would never be another version of D&D, as far as they were concerned.  There would never be a 3.6e, or a 3.75e.  Well, not from Hasbro, anyway.  Except ... except that 3e and 3.5e were OGL.  So we didn’t actually need Hasbro for a new 3.Xe version of D&D.  It couldn’t actually be called D&D of course—the OGL didn’t extend to the actual trademarked name—but it could work just like it, maybe have a few improvements here and there, be essentially the same game, only better and with a different name.  If only someone would do that ...

So Paizo did it.

It was inevitable, really.  4e was such a disappointment to so many people.  Not just me; I could point you at dozens of other blogs that agree with me.  Sure, many people thought it was okay; a few even loved it.  But with so many people so disappointed, and the OGL D&D just sitting there ...

And, just as I said that all the things wrong with 4e might not have mattered if the game itself was good enough (but it wasn’t), so it was that all that Paizo did might not have mattered if they hadn’t managed to get it right.  Because it wasn’t enough to repackage the same tired 3.5e rules and slap a new name on it: if they wanted to put out a new game with a new name, it had to offer something that 3.5e didn’t have.

And, as I said, 3.5e had a lot.  It was an improvement over 3e, just as 3e was an improvement over the previous versions.  But it was far from perfect.  It had its warts.  And Paizo fixed just about all of them.  And they did by holding a giant, year-long, open playtest.  That is, they put out the new rules for free, for everyone to look at, and they opened up special sections on their web forums for feedback, and they actually listened to what people had to say.  And, man, does it show.

I’ll give you 3 simple reasons why Pathfinder is better than 3.5e (never mind why it’s better than 4e—that’s not hard to do).  Again, if you’re not an RPG gamer, this may not mean much, but I’ll see if I can make it make sense.

First, they eliminated “dead levels.”  In D&D, there have always been levels for certain classes where you advanced to that level, but you didn’t get anything much for it.  You got to rub out a couple of numbers on your character sheet and write in some new, bigger ones.  Some classes were worse than others in this respect: for fighters in 1e, for instance, every level was a dead level.  3e/3.5e was much better, but still, many classes, such as fighters and barbarians, had a dead level every other level.  It meant that playing (or at least advancing) those classes was boring half the time.  But Pathfinder fixes that, by giving you something (even if it’s just a little thing) to look forward to every level.

Secondly, they fixed the maximum skill ranks problem.  In 3e/3.5e, you have skill ranks, and the most ranks you can have in a skill is your level + 3.  Except for cross-class skills, where it’s half that.  Every level, you get skill points, and 1 skill point equals 1 skill rank, if it’s a class skill, or 2 skill points equals 1 skill rank for cross-class skills.  Oh, and at first level you get 4 times as many skill points.  If all that sounds complicated, that’s because it is.  Pathfinder eliminates skill points and just gives you skill ranks every level.  The number of ranks in every skill is now your level, and class skills give you a +3 bonus if you put any ranks in them.  This simple, elegant change works out to almost the same mathematically, but it’s so much simpler to deal with.  Pathfinder is full of things like that.

Thirdly, they changed the way favored classes work.  In 3e/3.5e, races have favored classes (humans can pick any class), and taking levels in your favored class eliminates XP penalties for multiclassing.  Yes, if you want to multiclass, you get penalties.  In Pathfinder, though, there are no penalties for multiclassing.  Instead, favored classes (which can be chosen by anyone, regardless of race) give you an extra hit point or an extra skill rank (your choice) every level you take that class.  In other words, they changed the stick into a carrot.  Much nicer to encourage people to stick with one class by offering them something shiny than to try to impose penalties (complicated math penalties, even) on them when they don’t.

Notice I said “thirdly” and not “finally.”  That’s because there’s lots more reasons why Pathfinder is an improvement over 3.5e.  Consolidation of skills (no more having to waste skill points on both Hide in Shadows and Move Silently if you want to be sneaky), races get two bonuses and one penalty (instead of one and one), simplification of grapple rules (and combination of them with other combat maneuvers such as trip or disarm), feats at every other level instead of every third, removal of limits on cantrips/orisons, elimination of XP costs for magic items and spells, capstone abilities for all classes, simplification of some of the more stupidly complex spells (such as polymorph) ... I could go on and on.  I suppose Pathfinder isn’t a perfect game either, but it seems to have no new flaws, and it fixes many (not all, admittedly) of the flaws that 3e/3.5e brought to the table.  What more could you ask for?

In the end, it’s easier for me to make the character I want with Pathfinder.  It’s more flexible, and it continues to make sense.  I wish the combat could be more streamlined (and I plan on experimenting with combining True20 with Pathfinder to help address that), but that’s my only major complaint with the system, and that was inherited straight from D&D, from 1e all the way through to 3.5e.  So, overall, Pathfinder is a mighty fine system, and I’m glad Paizo has blessed us with it.  The core books are gorgeous, there’s only two of them (making it cheaper for the base set than D&D), and you can get PDFs of them as well, which are also well-crafted.  I still love D&D, and as far as I’m concerned I’m still playing it.  It just has a new name now.

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