RPGaDay2021 #3: Tactic

Today’s RPGaDay prompt is “Tactic”. Although it would have been very interesting to write about either “Risk” and “Support” in regards to tabletop RPGs, I’ll stick to the spirit of the rules and take “Tactic” as my prompt for the day; after all, it’s about stimulating us all to write about things we wouldn’t normally write about, and if I start choosing the topic, I’ll end up with some bias in my topic selections.

As much as I can harp on Dungeons & Dragons for being a tabletop combat boardgame about murderhobos, I do enjoy that game for what it is when I feel like playing exactly that. The most fun I’ve ever had with that is in Pathfinder while I was DMing the Kingmaker adventure path. Incidentally, that is now available as a PC game, which I’ve enjoyed playing through. Another adventure path, Wrath of the Righteous, is also coming out as a PC game soon.

D&D changed radically from its 3.5 edition to the 4th edition, and not everybody was happy about the direction Wizards of the Coast was taking (4th edition was even more boardgame-like than 3.5 was), so Paizo decided to work onwards from 3.5 and retool that system into Pathfinder. Currently, Pathfinder is in its 2nd edition. The group I had back then (this would have been about a decade ago or so) met up religiously on Friday evenings, and we had been doing that for years. Our previous DM had burnt out on DMing, so I had taken over. I’d run some campaigns for them, the most notorious of which was a World of Darkness campaign, but as I was going into my MA degree, I had much less time to devote to DMing, so I turned to adventure paths. That worked nicely for the group as well, as they wanted to play something more like a powerfantasy as well.

The way our previous DM ran D&D 3.5e was always very forgiving: many enemies were intentionally not too bright, and there was never a real risk of losing your character as there’d always be some kind of way out. What I was proposing for my group was a much different style of gameplay. If they wanted Pathfinder, that combat-orientated boardgame of murderhobos, then I’d give them combat-orientated gameplay. We all agreed that I would be pulling out all the stops. I wouldn’t be out to kill them and of course not every enemy would be a tactical genius, but enemies would be using their skills as best they could and I wouldn’t be pulling any hits. Wolfs would hunt like packs, and while a lowly bandit might break and run, the bandit captain would certainly remind the melee fighters to surround the spellcasters and the rangers fighters to attack the hand-to-hand fighters from a distance. Once the bandit captain would be out of comission, sure, things would devolve. In short: I made sure to give them a real challenge.

Some of their first characters died quickly and easily, but the tone around the table was usually exhilarated. Everything was risky, and they had to work together as a battle unit to survive the world that was out to kill them. My players started to get creative, too: rather than the usual “throw fireballs until it dies” approach, suddenly there were buffs and debuffs, entangling spells, attempts to flank, and debates on who to take out first and who to leave behind. The battles became Conan-esque struggles between good and evil, and every victory bolstered the players while every defeat had them planning out revenge.

All this provided wonderful contrast to the city that they were building in the campaign. As dangerous as the outside was, the city was their slowly increasing sphere of control and safety. They worked to bring the allies they’d make outside into the city, and a sense of camaradery grew within the fiction, as the players and NPCs worked towards safety.

For that type of game, the Pathfinder/D&D-style games, I love the tactical combat of it and enjoy leaning heavily into the strengths of the system. It almost makes me want to pick up Pathfinder 2e to see what’s going on with that.

3 thoughts on “RPGaDay2021 #3: Tactic”

  1. The thing I dislike(d) about Pathfinder is that the march of optimization is relentless. If you did not have an ‘optimal build’ for your character, you were in trouble at the higher level combats. So everyone ended up with one of a few cookie-cutter characters, because some choices were clearly superior to others.

    I hadn’t played Pathfinder for a long time, but in the past months I have been playing in a campaign for the ‘War for the Crown’ adventure path. It has lots of social interaction, and that’s been really refreshing — not everything gets resolved by combat. Of course, it’s not something Pathfinder is very good at (loads of ‘Sense Motive’ rolls etc), but once you move away from that it’s quite decent. In that campaign, our tactics are more about whether to invest our money into a new mill or a temple in order to get more popular support…

    1. I can totally see that, because Pathfinder is absolutely a tactical combat game, and optimization is a pretty important part of it. If you don’t optimize, you’re actively hurting the party as a whole. So, I’m on the same path when it comes to evaluating the game; only if I’m specifically looking for a combat game can I really enjoy playing it.

      As you said, otherwise you deal with that awkward fit of just rolling “sense motive” for interaction, or DND 3.5e’s “diplomacy” with no actual explanation of what that means.

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