Pathfinder Alpha 2 & Choice Fatigue

May 18, 2008 at 12:46 pm
filed under Roleplaying
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Pathfinder Alpha 3 is going to be out soon, so maybe it’s a bit late to be talking about Alpha 2. But screw that. Our vanilla 3.5 game converted over to it, we had our first Pathfinder session last week, and here’s what I think, based on the conversion process and familiarity with a couple of the classes introduced with this revision.

My general opinion of Pathfinder persists: I think they’re hamstrung from fixing a lot of issues big and small due to their insistence on (and arguably necessary) backwards compatibility. They still have spell preparation and memorization, though I’ll get to some of the new stuff for casters in a moment. Level loss still exists. Presumably, ability damage and the attendant stat adjustment math persists. You could just summarize this as “Matthew’s not a huge fan of 3.5.” If you’re OK with that stuff, then Pathfinder’s no worse and possibly a bit better in some places.

The new classes in Alpha 2 include: sorcerers, barbarians, and paladins. I’m only going to talk about two, as they’re the ones I’ve most closely observed in actual play.

Sorcerer

Wizards were part of Alpha 1. They got their 0th levels at will, schools that conferred abilities, and a couple of other minor bits. Alpha 2 introduced a write-up for sorcerers. In terms of flavor, it’s actually very cool. Sorcerers can choose a bloodline, which a way of explaining the source of your power. Abyssal, Draconic, Elemental, and Undead are each possibilities; there are about a dozen or more. A bloodline confers extra feats and a mix of passive and active abilities in the spirit of the domain or school abilities afforded the cleric and wizard.

I was disappointed they didn’t get 0th spells at-will, mainly because the cleric, wizard, and druid do, and I thought that was a good decision. I see why they didn’t do the same for sorcerers. Hell, I’ve never run out of 0th level spells. There is something about having a limit, though, that encourages a hoarding instinct.

Most of their at-will abilities are melee touch attacks, which I dislike, as that’s a very much a corner case considering how fragile spellcasters still are. The bloodline feats are a nice little boost, though some bloodlines have better ones than others.

As you might’ve deduced, I feel there’s something lacking. Maybe one analogy is that it seems like we’re throwing money at the problem, here. I’ll come back to that in a moment.

Barbarian

The only other new class that I am particularly familiar with is the barbarian, which is my girlfriend’s character. She enjoys rolling dice and killing things, but the complexity of D&D is a real drag for her, so I do my best to help her out.

In 3.5, this class was already pretty solid, so the changes here aren’t earth-shattering. The biggest change is the introduction of rage points and rage abilities. The barbarian spends rage points to enter and maintain rage and, while raging, they can spend additional rage points to activate rage abilities. Barbarians get a rage ability every other level.

This is all right. This is not to say that the abilities aren’t good (and despite my gripes above, this comment also applies to the sorcerer). Many rage abilities are very good, such as one that allows you to spend 3 rage points to increase your speed by 10′, or another that lets you add half your barbarian level as a dodge bonus to AC.

What I’m not a big fan is the complexity that comes with this sort of point-based system. Many D&D classes already have a decent grab-bag of abilities. Barbarians weren’t quite one of those. They did often fall prey to the fact that they were the most effective at low levels but also the most boring, in that all they did was hit things. But rage and speed were a couple of defining class abilities that I think shone through pretty well.

My name is Matthew and I don’t know what I want

Now barbarians do have a grab-bag of abilities that, while evocative, increase the number of fiddly bits on the class before you even get into the increased number of feats available to every class. And as I mentioned above it may be that my opinion comes primarily from watching my girlfriend play it: it’s another couple of numbers to keep track of in combat, another set of abilities you have to remember you have, and more subtraction to do when you do remember to use your rage ability to do X or Y.

If I had to pin my criticism down, I’d say that this design philosophy feels like it’s throwing money at the problem. One of the design goals is explicitly to keep you interested in playing a class, and Pathfinder does this by adding another layer of abilities at the cost of increasing complexity at the table and away from it.

Is it heresy to suggest that ability fatigue could exist in a role-playing game? If there is, I suspect that that’s sort of what I’m experiencing when it comes to picking a bloodline feat or a new rage ability. I just want to pick something to get it out of the way, not because I’m particularly excited to have that ability.

It occurs to me that there’s some possible irony, here. One of the concerns I heard voiced about D&D 4th Edition was that it would give everybody a whole bunch more abilities up front, thereby increasing the number of things you have to worry about at character creation and at the table. Yet most of the 4th edition characters we’ve seen by this point are fairly simple and elegant. Admittedly, there are strong counter-arguments: both 4e clerics we’ve seen have a whopping nine abilities, and though the design philosophy is different, there are purportedly going to be many more feats in 4e than in 3e.

In the end, we’ll have to wait to see the final product for both Pathfinder and 4th Edition. Pathfinder’s still in alpha, and everything I write here could be different as soon as Wednesday, when Alpha 3 comes out. We won’t see a beta until August. Likewise, we’ll need the whole picture of 4th Edition to have an apples-to-apples comparison of complexity at a given level, the rate at which that complexity increases, and how 4e approaches feats.

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