In my freshman year of college (or university, to you non-Americans), I played rugby. It’s not a common sport in the US; prior to that, I’d had no particular inclinations toward the game, nor did I know anyone who played. But by chance, I met a player who suggested I join. The pitch went something like this: “You’ll meet interesting people! You’ll get to play in the dirt! And after games, there’s beer, pizza, and raunchy drinking songs!”
Sounded golden. I was in. As promised, the drinking songs were like nothing I’ve heard before or since. There was also no shortage of dirt (or mud, or grass). The only problem? I’m just not a very violent person. I’m nice.
That might sound funny to anyone who knows me as the Cloudkill witch from Mark’s Reign of Winter campaign, but in real life, I’m a softy. Even in practice sessions, I couldn’t quite get the hang of knocking girls over. It just didn’t seem very polite.
But back to the point: when I joined the team, I didn’t know how to play rugby. I’m an American. Nobody knows how to play rugby. And on the first day, when I asked the coach, “How do you play, exactly?” the response was: “Just get in there. You’ll learn it.”
Not particularly reassuring.
I did eventually learn some technique: how to grab your teammates in a scrum and your opponents in a tackle, how to fall without hurting yourself, how to throw that oblong… thing… further than two feet. (I spent high school mostly on the computer. Shut up.)
But I never learned the rules of rugby, and neither did my teammates, really. We cheered for our own fouls, that’s how little we understood what was going on. After two semesters, I was totally done.
To this day, I can’t tell you a single thing about how rugby is played. What are the rules? How’s it scored? Magic. Rugby works by magic. Don’t even try to convince me otherwise, because you can’t.
Earlier this year, I thought maybe I should give dungeon-diving a try. I took a break from Fate and indie one-shots and looked around for a game of D&D or Pathfinder, and that’s how I met Mark.
I asked him, “So how does one play Pathfinder?”
“Oh, just jump in and you’ll get the hang of it soon enough.”
Here we go again. (Just so we’re clear, the R in RPG doesn’t stand for rugby… does it?)
In the end, it all worked out. Turns out, I’m pretty good at being the party witch! (And it’s making me question the whole niceness-as-an-inborn-personality-trait that I mentioned earlier.)
I attribute my relative success at Pathfinder compared to rugby to three basic factors:
- I’m better at games than at sports.
- I’ve played others kinds of RPGs previously.
- Video games are full of concepts borrowed from tabletop.
- It’s pretty hard to be bad at Pathfinder.
“What do you mean, you can’t be bad at Pathfinder?”
Whoa buddy, I didn’t say can’t, but it ain’t easy. Now bear with me as I briefly steer the conversation in a new direction: old school games.
For the record, I’ve never played a truly old school RPG or even an Old School Revival (OSR) game. I wasn’t even born when 0e came out. But for work, I’ve had to research them, and my impression is that old school games required quite a bit of skill, vigilance, and attention to detail. Conversely, it was difficult to craft or showcase a character’s personality — sub-optimal play could easily lead to a Total Party Kill.
There is skill involved in Pathfinder, don’t get me wrong. Build your character poorly and you’ll be shooting yourself in the foot. But unlike rugby or an OSR, when it comes to figuring out what to do next, you pretty much just look at your character sheet and pick something. If you die because you encountered a monster that was too difficult, it’s the DM’s fault for not balancing the module properly.
My new interpretation of Mark’s advice is, “When the time comes to act, you’ll know what to do.” So far that’s been true. The odd thing? I know that the simplicity on my end is a result of Pathfinder and similar games being so complex, spanning multiple rule- and sourcebooks.
If you want to actually run the game, there’s a lot to learn and a lot to commit to memory, and even then the DM’s got to keep the book with them in case there’s need to look up a rule or spell. Which makes me skeptical as to whether anyone’s really got a handle on this game.
So if a new girl asked me, “How do you play Pathfinder?”, what would I tell her?
“It’s like rugby: nobody actually knows.”