Saturday, September 8, 2012

Blasphemy from My Month of Madness

I'm not going to beat around the bush here. I finally succumbed and now have the Pathfinder Beginner Box. In a way, I feel like a sell-out punk, but this angst ridden month of unfocused gaming energy has lead me to some interesting thoughts.

First and foremost, this little hobby of ours should be motivated by fun, not some slavish dedication to a certain style of play or particular rules set. I know that is an obvious statement, and it has been said before, a lot.

One thing my mind has been coming back to, though, is a more true sense of what it was really like "back in the day". I lived through "old school" when it was the only school. We can look back on it with nostalgia and fondness, and we can have an appreciation for the simple and unfettered way we played back then (which I do). Yet, back in '76 and '77, we were always on the look out for more options. More classes, more races, more spells, more magic items, more monsters, more, more, MORE. We didn't see sparse spell descriptions as a feature. Shit like that frustrated us to no end. It was a real downer to stop the game because someone used a spell that we didn't have committed to memory, take the time to find the spell's description in whatever supplement or obscure fanzine article, only to discover that the description left a lot of blanks to be filled.

I could go on, but I don't want to come off as bashing old school. I love my memories of it, and I love making new memories with the OSR. I only bring up those recollections to comfort my own guilty conscious. For over a year now I have been lauding the ethereal lightness of OSR play styles and rules sets, yet here I've gone and strode boldly into the Pathfinder camp.

The facts of the matter are simple enough, though. If you can manage to pare down the feat lists, tame the population of prestige classes, make the Conditions manageable, and make the nightmare of Attacks of Opportunity return to the Hell from which it sprang, you will find a rather robust, simple, and straightforward engine purring away at the core of Pathfinder. I know, I know, I've waxed poetic about the charm of individual subsystems, and I do love the ambiance they bring. There was a line in the Beginner Box Hero's Guide that struck me, though:

"That simple roll is your doorway to limitless fantasy adventure!" Now, that is a bold statement, my friends. Yet, it made me take notice of a potential virtue of a unified mechanic, a virtue I had not allowed myself to consider.

One of the great desires of most role players is for the system to fade into the background, to "get out of the way" and let the adventure happen. As OSR devotees that is something we always seek in our lightweight rules sets. Well, I have to admit, if the list of modifiers is kept manageable, such a universal mechanic should be largely transparent in play.

Ok, so I've rambled on about paring this and managing that. Yet, no edition of 3.x, whether it comes from WotC or Paizo, is known for its restraint. The base system is bloated and has more bells and whistles, switches and dials than the space station. It is a fine example of rules-lawyer excess, and it seems that no one (outside of some OSR titles, that is) is really interested in trimming the fat and trying to reveal the sleek animal underneath.

Which is where the Beginner Box comes into it. I haven't finished reading it yet, but I have gotten far enough in to be impressed. There isn't a list of feats longer than the Atlanta phone book. Spell descriptions are old-school simple. Take, for example:

Here is the description of the same spell from Men & Magic:
Clairvoyance: Same as ESP spell except the spell user can visualize rather than
merely pick up thoughts.

And, finally, from the Pathfinder SRD:

School divination (scrying); Level bard 3, sorcerer/wizard 3, witch 3
Casting Time 10 minutes
Components V, S, F/DF (a small horn or a glass eye)
Range long (400 ft. + 40 ft./level)
Effect magical sensor
Duration 1 min./level (D)
Saving Throw none; Spell Resistance no

Clairaudience/clairvoyance creates an invisible magical sensor at a specific location that enables you to hear or see (your choice) almost as if you were there. You don't need line of sight or line of effect, but the locale must be known - a place familiar to you, or an obvious one. Once you have selected the locale, the sensor doesn't move, but you can rotate it in all directions to view the area as desired. Unlike other scrying spells, this spell does not allow magically or supernaturally enhanced senses to work through it. If the chosen locale is magically dark, you see nothing. If it is naturally pitch black, you can see in a 10-foot radius around the center of the spell's effect. Clairaudience/clairvoyance functions only on the plane of existence you are currently occupying.

As you can see, the Beginner Box definitely has a grasp of keeping things simple. It is my sincerest wish that this commitment to simplification holds out. I would love for this set to be something I could be comfortable using as a go-to rather than an introductory experience. I've been intrigued by the notion of E6 style play for some time, but I just don't have the familiarity with Pathfinder to make the necessary cuts and mods. If the essential engine that drives Beginner Box has the necessary cuts and mods, that would be a wondrous thing indeed. I'll keep you posted.


  1. I'm not massively into the OSR, I read your blog because you write well and come up with interesting ideas for the whole hobby, and with that in mind, I think I can genuinely see the appeal in the starter set. I wasn't a huge fan of 3 or 3.5, but this way of presenting the rules makes the game look way more playable.

    1. Thanks for the complements, Paul. Sincerely, it means a lot. I've read more of the Beginner Box and have some (possibly heretical) thoughts, which I'll be sharing fairly soon.

      In the meantime, I do recommend taking a look at the BB as a potential rules-lite option that still manages to be robust and fairly complete out of the box. It can be had on Amazon for a little over $25 (new) plus shipping.