Haunchieville Heroes!

I played in a modified Pathfinder game this past weekend and while it was fun despite the clunky rules, it reaffirmed my hatred of the overuse of demi-human and non-human characters, especially flipping to this from running Runequest Vikings and Lamentations of the Flame Princess more recently. The entire group, with the exception of my character, were short people– one dwarf, one halfling and shockingly one of the players actually agreed to play a gnome(!?) which I still find unbelievable. The issue with this type of party is that the stories your are going to be telling, regardless of the module or adventure, are going to be akin to cartoon D&D stories with nearly all the characters being comic relief, which is exactly what it turned out to be. What’s more, with this many shorties, the adventure should be an entirely short-person story, like the fight of the haunchy’s vs their larger oppressors; sort of like playing as Ewoks in a Star Wars campaign vs the evil storm troopers rather than anything bog standard– because the party is magical short people and not made up of regular murder hobos.

The reason for playing Demi-humans in some modern versions of D20 (3.5 and 4th for example) is primarily one of optimization. Examples (which may not be accurate): Dark Elves have X trait that combos with Y class to make an uber-powered character once they hit 5th level, Halflings are ALWAYS the best thieves so why would you ever take any other race with that class, and due to their racial abilities, why would you ever play a non-High Elf magic user? D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder are solely about character progression and optimization: this is their core appeal. Since XP in those versions comes from fighting, most of the optimizations are for combat only and you get into the trap of: ‘I need XP from fighting, and I have to get that XP as rapidly as I can so I need to optimize and if I don’t optimize, other optimization-freaks in the party will castigate me.’

Now, I’m not ripping on gonzo or heroic fantasy per se, non-humans have their place (except for gnomes of course who need to stay in the fucking garden), but look at our party in 13th Age: one Human Paladin, one Wood Elf ranger, one High Elf Sorceress, one Halfling bard and a Human Barbarian. The original group had a Dark Elf cleric as well. When you are a GM and you create stories for this type of group, they are demi-human stories. The first adventure was a mission that the elves were on for the Elf Queen, and the humans were ancillary characters (at first). Since 13th Age is like the Feng Shui of D20 games, that is: mega gonzo, with cities on the backs of behemoths and armies of demons invading everywhere, this is not out of sorts. At the lowest levels you are thrown into fights with Dragons and hordes of trolls, etc. so it feels more natural to have ‘magical’ beings around from the outset, but even then you are in danger of your party becoming a ‘comic relief’ party instead of something people take seriously. The difference in 13th Age for the XP optimization trap is that the GM determines when the level up happens– there is no XP. While this seems subtle, this is a huge motivation for characters to do things outside of combat to advance their campaign goals and nothing, NOTHING is on an on-rails adventure path where fights must happen to garner the characters enough XP to advance the story.

I guess in my experience with the comedy races/classes: Halflings are always hammed up, barbarians and the oft-maligned Bards (of any race) are also usually played a bit hammy. Elves are for the most part very serious and humans can run the gamut from serious to HAM. Teiflings, really just a different type of Dark Elf but they seem less serious. Gnomes– just should never be played or included in any fantasy setting with the exception of this. Unless you are looking to play cartoon D&D.

If you have too much Ham in your races and classes (note the Bard and Barbarian are both dangerous in this regard because you could double up with a barbarian halfling or a Dragonborn Bard…), your game is going to descend into HAM regardless of the seriousness of the material you bring to the table as a GM.  While it’s certainly personal taste, I just want my games more like this:


Rather than this:


Some d&d..er Pathfinder

Not without some trepidation after a disasterous D&D session at a bachelor party in 2005 did I agree to a day long Pathfinder session for a buddy’s birthday.  Having only had the chance to play an RPG a few times, and with my majority exposure to version 3.0 being the excellent CRPG Temple of Elemental Evil, I said yes.   Since it was in the company of friends, food and beer, there was no question at all that it was fun, so I want to focus on a few things in the system that irked me a bit.  While the session was entertaining, it ratified some of my previous feelings that the D20 system has a very odd abstraction of combat that really isn’t very good when you get right down to it.

First is initiative.  Pathfinder’s initiative system makes zero changes from 3rd edition, 2nd edition and as far as I can remember uses the same initiative system as basic D&D.  Each character rolls a D20, adds some modifiers and take their attack turns in that order.  Regardless of the type of action the character takes, their initiative order does not change at any point during combat, regardless of ‘wounds’ and regardless of the action they took until a character or enemy is incapacitated.  Essentially, characters have 6 seconds to act in and order based on an arbitrary role at the beginning of combat.  That said, I failed to see the real advantage of going first.  Compared to other systems (I’m tempted to say ‘more modern systems’ here but will abstain) the initiative system has a frustrating lack of tactical depth.  In most RPG’s I’ve played or GM’ed since playing D&D as a kid,  a character’s speed and actions taken during their turn effect the next time they can act, how they are able to defend, etc.   While the initiative system in this version of D&D works, it has a distinct lack of allowing the player to make interesting choices.

Second beef is the single, massive spread of pips die roll to attack–i.e.: the basis for the entire D20 system.  In combat you make a couple choices, for example: whether to move attack/ attack move whether or not to use a feat, etc.  What it really boils down to are modifiers on a single die roll where each pip represents +/-5%.  If you roll high enough, you get to roll another die for damage.  If you roll low, your turn is over.  There are no attack rerolls, no way to expend power points or whatnotall to enhance your attack, and while the choice of feats to use can be somewhat interesting, it typically only increases or decreases the attack roll by 5-10%.  What’s more, your attack roll has nothing to do with anything your opponent did previously, and your opponent cannot react at all to your attack, whether it’s an (abstracted) flurry of fists or a massive haymaker with a halberd.

Third, and this is the big one for me, is the lack of narrative combat options: i.e.: stunting. During the session I kept wanting to blurt out some heroic, stylish, wuxia-infused description of a clever use of the scenery, my weapon or the opponent’s position to not only spice up the proceedings, but to gain some extra dice/pips to hit, etc. I realized during the session that I hadn’t played a game without some form of stunting, whether it was Werewolf, Exalted, Amber diceless or Feng Shui for a decade or so. I’ve been exposed so much to players always stunting everything that I had forgotten just how like a dry wind through a soulless city (like, say, Houston) narrative roleplaying combat was without it.

Years ago during a session of Feng Shui, an old school D&D player (who we will call Steve to protect the innocent) had real problems wrapping his head around the stunting system while fighting some mooks inside a fully stocked kitchen no less. After some frustrating attempts at stunting and goading from the other players he would simply say “Medium punch to no specific location.”    He eventually picked up the torch and can now stunt to consistently help other players to roll on the floor in laughter or state the softly spoken ‘badass’ compliment.  Yet, this phrase is the essence of my issue with the D20 system. Combat becomes an exercise of moving miniatures, adding up the bonuses and rolling one die representing an abstracted set of combat actions that take exactly six seconds. If you roll high you get to roll another die– and that’s it. While miniature-based, Pathfinder/D&D is just not good miniature combat (like say Confrontation), nor does it capture the narrative possibilities that exist for pen and paper RPGs. For me personally, stunting in combat is sine qua non. Without it, my Confrontation/Warhammer/Blood Bowl miniature game player brain takes over and it’s all about abusing scenery, wishing I had a lot more than just one little plastic figure to control and little quirks in the rules rather than a flowing narrative.