Sunday, March 18, 2018

Looking Forward to Pathfinder's Next Iteration

The second edition of Pathfinder has just been announced.

Now, I have an opinion on this, and I’d like to believe it’s an informed opinion, but (like pretty much all my topics), I feel like there’s quite a bit of background to cover before my thoughts make sense.  Happily, I’ve already talked about most of it before: for full details of my opinions, you could read my post on post-apocalyptic RPGs (where I cover a bit about the different versions of D&D, up through 3e), and my two-part series on Pathfinder (link to part 2 at the bottom of part 1; this one covers open gaming and the rise of Pathfinder’s first edition).  If reading all that seems like too much trouble, I’ll give you the short version:

  • What we call D&D today was originally called “Advanced” Dungeons & Dragons.  In retrospect, we refer to this as first edition (even though there was a version before it: sort of a proto-D&D), or 1e.  It was ... a game.  It came out in 1978(ish).
  • The second edition of “advanced” D&D came out in 1989, and we call that (again, in retrospect) 2e.  I have never heard anyone say that 2e wasn’t better than 1e.  1e was a hot mess of confusing and contradictory rules.  2e cleaned up a huge amount of that (but admittedly not all of it) and added long-demanded subsytems (e.g. “non-weapon proficiencies,” which would become skills in 3e).
  • Third edition D&D (no longer “advanced”) came out in 2000, and was called 3e pretty much from the get-go.  What we retrespectively rename it is “3.0,” because of what followed.  Unlike the 1e to 2e transition, 3e pretty much radically rewrote nearly all the rules.  However, the basic shape of the game didn’t change.1  Most significantly, 3e was the version of D&D that introduced us to the OGL (or “Open Gaming License”), a concept based on the open-source software (OSS) movement.  Whether 3e is better than 2e or not is more debatable, but I would say a majority (although maybe not a huge one) would say it is.
  • In 2003, just 3½ years after 3.0, 3.5e was released (and here’s where people started using the software-style version numbers).  There were a number of good reasons to do this, primarily because the lack of public playtesting meant that there were some things in 3e that were just plain broken and really needed to be addressed—and, if you have to force people to buy all new books anyway, may as well fix as much as possible, right?—but it did force people to buy all new books (if they wanted to keep getting cool new stuff that was compatible with the game they were playing, at least), and therefore this is the first instance I can remember of anyone referring to a new edition as a “cash grab.”  3½ years really is a fairly short amount of time to ask people to reinvest in core rulebooks all over again, but at least most people agree that 3.5 was better than 3.0.  Oh, sure: a lot of people hated it and refused to upgrade on principle, but very few tried to argue that it wasn’t better.
  • In 2008, 4e was released, and it was a radical departure.  Now, you may have noted that, in my Pathfinder posts, I described 4e by saying it “sucks.”  That was probably too harsh: I plead youth and a certain amount of bitterness.2  Today let’s just say that, while 3e seemed radically different at the time, because it was a complete redesign, 4e was a departure on a whole different scale.  It just wasn’t the same game any more (and consequently launched the so-called “edition wars”).  And, while some people like the game it was better than actual D&D, I preferred (and still prefer) the original.  I’m okay with rewriting and redesiging and throwing out whole chunks and replacing with crazy new ideas, but I still want it to be the same game.  Call me anti-progress if you must, but that’s my line and I’m sticking to it.  But, regardless of how you feel about whether 4e was better or worse than 3e (and probably they’re so different that “better” and “worse” aren’t even terms that could apply any more), the most significant point is that it wasn’t released under the OGL.  They took the open-gaming game and closed it.
  • In 2009, the inevitable happened, and the open-gaming game was forked: Pathfinder appeared, keeping the same general engine as 3e (3.5e, really) and just fixing some of the more egregious warty bits.  Being disappointed with 4e, I switched to Pathfinder immediately and played it nearly exclusively.  Again, I’ve heard few people claim that Pathfinder isn’t better than 3.5e, and comparison to 4e is just as silly as comparing 3e to 4e.
  • In 2014, 5e arrived amidst claims that it brought together the best bits of the previous 4 versions ... and, surprisingly, it pretty much delivered.  The most common criticism of 5e is that it’s “everybody’s second favorite version of D&D,” but it’s easily my favorite.  It’s back to being the same game that 3e was, in my opinion, but once again redesigned from the ground up, and streamlined and simplified to a degree I had previously thought impossible.  Not immediately, but gradually, I’ve switched away from Pathfinder over to 5e.3

Yes, this is actually the short version, and I’ve still glossed over quite a few details that I didn’t feel were entirely relevant.  Last bit of relevant info: who am I to offer an opinion, and what perspective do I come at it from?  Well, I’ve played every edition mentioned above, except for 4e, and I’ve been playing for about three-quarters of my life.  I’m a software developer who’s been programming nearly as long as he’s been playing D&D, and whose first serious computer program (at perhaps age 15) was a D&D character generator.  While I’m quite literally a graybeard, I do not consider myself a grognard: I love change, and I love updates to my favorite games, and I love it when things get easier to do and I love having more options.  And my perspective as a programmer leads me to think about new editions of the game like new versions of a software program: new features aren’t always good just because they’re new, but never upgrading means you’re stuck with outdated features while everyone around you gets the good stuff, and complete rewrites are tricky to get right, but pay big dividends when you do.  Also, I believe in open-source.  A lot.

Now, all that having been said, what do I think of a new version of Pathfinder, given what little info they’ve released so far?  Well, there are a few common (negative) reactions that I’ve seen a lot of that I want to address:

  • Many people are referring to it as a “cash grab.”  This is so far past ridiculous as to be practically moronic.  Every version of D&D—nay, every version of any tabletop RPG—released after 3.5e has been called a “cash grab” by somebody, and usually a large/loud contingent of somebodies.  But look at the timelines up above: 1e to 2e was 11 years, and then 11 more to 3e.  No one ever said “cash grab” for any of those.  3.5e came along a mere 3½ years later, though, and the cries of “cash grab” at that point weren’t entirely unjustified.  4e was 4 years after 3.5, but 8 years after 3e, which is still pretty respectable.  5e was 6 years after that, which is getting short again, but I would argue that being sensitive to the fact that many fans were unhappy with 4e—and sensitive to the business argument that Pathfinder was actually beating D&D in sales at that point—makes it okay.  On the Pathfinder side, second edition Pathfinder (P2e? 2P?) will arrive next year, a full 10 years after the original, which was, you remember, based on the 3e ruleset, which is another 9 years old on top of that.  Updating a 19-year-old ruleset is a “cash grab”?  Please.
  • Some people are saying that Pathfinder built its business model on customers who were afraid of change, and therefore updating the rules is doomed to fail.  But this is silly: if we were afraid of change, we’d have stuck with 3e altogether (many did), instead of embracing Pathfinder, which had more than a few radical new concepts.  Pathfinder gave us more options and kept play exciting while still simplifying a lot of complex bits—that’s why we bought it.  If they can do that again, we’ll buy it again.
  • Some people are pointing out that several of the details released so far sound a lot like the changes that D&D introduced in 5e, so therefore Pathfinder 2e is a 5e rip-off, so therefore why not just stick with 5e?  The answer to this is two-fold.  First, those innovations didn’t actually originate in 5e—D&D stole some good ideas from other games with a lower profile.  If Pathfinder thinks they’re good ideas too (and, why wouldn’t they?), then they too should steal them.  To return to my software analogy, two competing pieces of software are often going to end up looking remarkably similar, because they’re both catering to the same customer base.  The similarities are irrelevant; we need to focus on the differentiators.  Secondly, speaking as someone who more-or-less abandoned Patfhinder for 5e in the first place, I’m hoping they steal as much from 5e as possible ... I actually want it to be more like 5e than what we’ve heard so far.  Include all the features that tempted me away and I’m likely to jump right back on board.

So, overall, none of the criticisms are striking home, and I’m pretty damned excited about the possibilities here.  Now, whether those possibilities will come to fruition or not is still an open question.  I’m not blindly saying that Pathfinder second edition will be great.  But I think it could be great.

What will determine whether it succeeds or fails is pretty simple, in my book.  It all has to do with why I (eventually) chose 5e over Pathfinder.  See, the reason that Pathfinder is better than 3e is that it adds choice.  As I’ve mentioned before, I believe that roleplaying is storytelling.  More choices for building a character, and more choices when advancing that character, means more flexibility in the kinds of stories I can tell.  When I read people saying that you never need more than 4 classes,4 my mind boggles.  Are there only 4 kinds of people in the world?  What kind of sad, impoverished stories are these people telling?  Every character in every story needs to be different from every other character, even if only by a little.  Every character needs multiple ways to be unique, to be memorable, to be heroic.  We need choices.

Unfortunately, choice brings complexity.  And complexity is not always bad, but it certainly can be.  If it makes the game harder to play, or harder for new people to learn, or makes it take longer to resolve what seem like simple actions ... all that complexity is no good.  When people say a new version is “streamlined,” what they mean is that a lot of that type of complexity has been removed.  Pathfinder has a lot of that kind of complexity.  Especially as the person who’s most often the GM in my games, I eventually just got burned out on how much effort and math and just plain work it was to manage all the complexity.

D&D 5e is definitely streamlined.  Combat is faster, and easier, putting together encounters is easier (and faster), there’s less math all around ... a lot of the complexity has been removed, and (again, especially from the GM perspective) that’s a welcome relief after the vast collection of fiddly bits that make up Pathfinder.  5e has a sort of elegance that’s very compelling.

And yet ...

And yet there’s a reason I liked Pathfinder in the first place.  It gave me more choices, and that was good.  Unfortunately the choices came with increased complexity, and that was bad.  5e gave me simplicity, and that was good, but it also reduced my choices, and that was bad.  I found that I missed all the options for building characters, or building monsters and encounters, or building NPCs such as main villains.  All of a sudden it was harder to tell the stories I wanted to tell.

One last digression:  I started my (professional) programming career in C.  C is what’s known as a “strongly-typed” language: every time you create a new variable, you’re required to say what type it is (integer, floating-point number, string, array, etc).  But that can be a giant pain in the ass, especially if you’re pulling in data from outside sources (such as databases5) and you don’t know what the type is.  For the last few decades, though, I’ve been programming in Perl, which is called a “weakly-typed” language—that is, when I declare a variable in Perl, I have to distinguish between singular values and plural values, but that’s it.  Strings, integers, floating-point: they’re all just “scalars.”  This was amazingly liberating for a long time.  But it turns out there’s a price to be paid for freedom: slower performance in some cases, potential errors from not being able to assume types, or from having the wrong type accidentally jammed into a variable, and so forth.  What I really want is to be able to choose between “strongly-typed” or “weakly-typed,” but within the same language.  When I declare a variable, I’ll choose whether to specify the type or not.  Interestingly, some of the newer languages (like Perl6) do allow this (they call it “progressively-typed”).  You get the best of both worlds.

Likewise, in my RPGs, while it may seem like I want both complexity and simplicity, and that those are diametrically opposed, in reality that’s a false choice.  I can have both in a single game, as long as each one is in the right area.  When I first started to think about it, I thought I wanted simplicity as a GM and complexity as a player.  But that’s not it, exactly.  What I actually want is simplicity at the table, and complexity away from the table.  Building a new character, or advancing my character to the next level ... those are activities that take place away from the table.  It doesn’t matter how long it takes (well, not to me, anyway), because it’s not holding up the game.  On the other hand, resolving actions such as skill challenges and especially combat needs to be simple, because they are happening in real time, during the game itself.  Now, there may be times when it’s desireable to simplify even the complex parts—for instance, if a new player wants to create a character quickly, or if a GM needs to put together an encounter on the fly—but those types of situations can be handled with judicious application of templates or a playbook-style set of examples.  In general, I think the at-the-table/away-from-the-table dichotomy makes the best split.

Will the second edition of Pathfinder provide this perfect split between complexity and simplicity?  I don’t know, and I don’t think anyone else does either, yet.  But Pathfinder’s differentiator from D&D has always been more options, and more complexity in those good places, and I don’t see that about to change any time soon.  And the tidbits they’ve released about the new version seem to indicate that they’re going to be stealing some of the features from 5e, in particular those that provide 5e’s simplicity in those good places.  So it’s at least possible that Pathfinder 2e could end up with the perfect balance.  And that would be pretty freaking awesome.


1 Obviously that’s my opinion.  Some folks disagreed, and there has been a movement ever since to “get back to” 2e-style play which is commonly referred to as OSR (for “Old School Revival”).  The fact that the many OSR D&D clones don’t just use 2e rules straight up lets us know that even they believe 2e had lots of room for improvement; they just didn’t agree with the direction 3e chose.  But, honestly, that’s a bit too much background info even for me, and not really necessary for the story.  Primarily this footnote exists so nitpickier readers know that I’m aware of OSR and don’t feel a burning need to “correct” me in the comments.

2 The “youth” part, obviously, is a bit tongue-in-cheek: 6½ years ago I was still pretty old.  Certainly my kids would tell you I was.

3 The full story of why I like 5e so much will have to wait for its own blog post, I think.

4 Meaning the 4 original classes: fighter, wizard, rogue, and cleric.

5 If you know anything about programming and databases and typing, you might wonder why databases—which are themselves strongly-typed—have issues interfacing with a strongly-typed language.  If you’re really interested, you could check out my discussion of strong vs weak typing on my Other Blog.