November 14th, 2010


Pathfinder Essentials: D&D from the Ground Up

 So, i have this crazy idea to take the stuff I've been talking about, and the stuff Rob Donoghue has been talking about, and see if i can mix them with Pathfinder, and the card-based approach to D&D... easily and fully.

This old post on Campaign Mastery has some interesting background material. It's obvious that Pathfinder has filled the "AD&D reborn" niche, while it seems that Essentials (and Gamma World) are searching out a way to evolve the Basic D&D mindset to a modern culmination.

Although my title here is a bit of a joke, the thinking I was doing about D&D has morphed into asking what D&D could look like if the CCG aspect was fully embraced. (I hate the 'collectible' aspect tho, so i'm ignoring that. I like to see what i'm buying.)

  • Characters are built as decks of cards
  • Each advance (level) allows a choice of card to be added to your "deck"; presumably, you could "level up" in Elf as easily as in Barbarian or Thief
  • Artifacts & "Magic Items" are cards as well; perhaps more focused/limited than level cards, perhaps not
  • Spells are item-like cards, as well; Vancian-magic Wizards would assemble a Spellbook deck, Sorcerers would just have the spell cards as a permanent part of their character's abilities
  • Unlike 4e, cards are generally not exhausted (items and spells can be exceptions)
Of course, if cards are elements of the character rather than expendable tools (eg. 4e's powers), why would we want to use a character deck rather than a character sheet? 
  • Cards are easily manipulated, sorted, & can act as physical objects ("show me")
  • Cards can be illustrative - going so far as the Paizo NPC Cards, with a picture on the front and text on the back
  • Cards make things real; this is great for any fictional thing which can be traded, lost, or expended; (note that if aspects of a character can be exchanged or changed, then cards are excellent tools, as well)
  • Cards make it easy to "put the pieces together" in building a character
  • Cards allow random generation to be easy and sensible (including allowing themed decks and role protection)
One of the interesting things about this approach is that it gives you the opportunity to do some things differently, some things that D&D traditionally hasn't done.

Things such as Quest cards. I probably shouldn't use that MMO-inspired 4e term; I don't quite mean the same notion. A Quest is not something the Iconic Old Man gives you, at least not just that; it's an intrinsic part of your character, like a class or spell or treasure. It's like a BW Belief - you can change it, you can discard it, you can complete it, you can have more than one, but when you have it, it's always in the forefront of play. Quests allow a character's goals & purpose to be put front and center, and be rewarded; taken the other way, 4e style, they also allow the GM to give the party priorities and hooks in a memorable, concrete form.

Another similar idea would be to introduce "Personality Cards"; these are essentially role-playing prompts (perhaps with a baked in mechanical benefit, perhaps separate from the XP system, perhaps not). Like a Tarot card, ideally they would be open to interpretation; if not, then experienced players should be able to easily make up custom Personality Cards that follow a set of guidelines. These would be great for drawing up randomly, and working into a character concept. 

This article by Robert Schwalb discussing classes & subclasses is relevant to any thoughts about class designs. 

Experience & Treasure

Choosing a rubric for awarding XP is key, as it shapes how the game is played more than any other aspect.

As I see it, XP can be used as a reward in several different ways:
  • XP can be rewarded for completing goals (like Belief Artha in BW, or resolving a Mission in Reign)
  • XP may be awarded for overcoming obstacles on the path to a goal (standard D&D)
  • XP can be gained as a mechanical interpretation of, or reward for, character development (such as the classic D&D treasure spending "party binge" rules)
  • XP can be a compensation for a character's troublesome learning experiences (such as Problems in Reign, or Trait Artha in BW)
Each kind of reward mechanism encourages its own kind of play, and forces the system to adapt to its underlying assumptions. For example, the standard D&D XP system rewards killing monsters & generally winning fights with increased abilities, mostly aimed at winning fights, but also at all sorts of other stuff, from persuading people to knowledge of ancient history to skill at making horseshoes!

By the way, one of my base assumptions here is that a D&D-like game has to award XP, spent to improve your character's abilities by gaining levels, rather than having any other kind of rewards, such as BW's Artha resource, or Reign's continual bonuses.

One of my biggest problems with modern interpretations of D&D is that they have made XP & levels completely separate from the reward system; they had to, thanks to the rapid increase in levels and sheer disparity in both depth and breadth of power that characters obtained with leveling. To undo that, characters of differing levels have to be able to meaningfully interact, which means that levels have to either result in less of a power boost, or that they only confer greater ability on a very narrow tract of the gamespace. 

One of my secret desires is to have an adventure game where the possession of an artifact or secret magic is just as (if not more) important power-wise than a character's innate levels. Once again modern D&D has issues, as the 3e/4e systems evaluate characters' abilities expecting them to have a certain prescribed set of treasures: all hail the almighty leveling ladder.

This raises an important point: traditional D&D has not one, but two key rewards: Experience and Treasure.

(It might have a third as well, Status, but i'll discuss that later, since gaining power over the world, rather than power of self, makes for a natural "second tier" of D&D play. It seems likely that you'd have three tiers, completely separate from modern D&D's idea of the "rise to epicness", in my reconstructed S&S game: 1) Heroes, 2) Kings, and 3) Planeswalkers. However, i'm not sure how to keep them from becoming intermingled...)