Put a log on the fire, time for another cozy chat. The Pathfinder Roleplaying Game is hitting maturity (read: growing up, not old) and it is time to have some honest talks about the birds, the bees… and the behemoths of balance.
For the next few days we are going to look at the ultimate field of balance in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game: Your Table.
Yep. It is on you kids… not the designers… not the developers… not the 3pp companies.
So let’s get into it. Today’s topic is about complexity…
Understanding Balance at the Table: Complexity
From its earliest days the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game’s driving forces have been mostly about three things:
1) Supporting reverse compatibility to the ancestral system.
2) Improving on the mechanics of the ancestral system.
3) Exploring concepts of the ancestral system in different or unknown ways.
Sometimes the innovations of one of these forces come into direct confrontation to another, nowhere more than in that maintaining reverse compatibility to the ancestral system multiplied by the interaction with improvements or by the addition of new mechanics–resulting in a geometric bloom of complexity.
A lot modern GMs curb this bloom by removing the options of the ancestral system. While this may curb the initial bloom of complexity. It doesn’t necessarily limit complexity in a meaningful way. For example let us consider a single “bloom” in the field of the complexity of the Pathfinder Role Playing Game:
In the classes of the PFRPG core-rule book playing only humans and only leveling to 13th level, only using core classes and only adding the multi-class mechanic in terms of complexity, there are over 6 trillion combinations of classes and levels alone. Many of those theoretical characters are not optimized, but most would be surprisingly playable.
A group of 4 players only playing to 13th level and taking one year to do so would have to run 3 games a week-with unique characters-would need to game for over 500 billion years to get through enough campaigns to do so.
500 billion years, just humans, just core classes, just 13th level before a single exact repetition would need to happen…
And we haven’t even looked at races or feats.
Sometimes I hear people complain about the ridiculous “mounting complexity” of the system and I just have to smile. We have been playing with a ridiculously complex system since we picked up the dice folks and looked at the Core Rulebook.
So, in playing the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game we have already made a choice to walk in to complexity–whether or not we understood that when we started. It is a system that is staggeringly complex and IS beyond any one person’s ability to fully map or understand. How then to swim the seas of infinity?
Tips for embracing complexity:
- Look for Contours, not Specifics – Like most data-modeling issues in-game balances are probably best viewed in shapes and curves of the generalities of your gaming experience. Noticed that the fighter is having a hard time in your game? Pull back and take in the last few campaigns your ran. Do melee characters generally suffer at your table? It may time to adjust your GMing style or maybe even issue a warning to new characters about the melee role in games your run?
- Don’t Overeact to Spikes – In our model of 6 trillion builds above, it is likely that some out perform the others. Drastically. That said they are all potential of characters from the Core Rulebook and legal by the most basic concepts of the game as it stands. Punishing a single classed evoker for being “broken” in this model is a potentially valid choice but mostly in regard to the other players builds. This rule extends when you add new sources or third party material. Make sure you aren’t reacting to a character that is broken in terms of relative performance to characters that didn’t engage the entirety of the system elements you chose. Don’t ban several billion options when one single interaction is all you find fault with.
- Find the Shape that Works – Sometimes elements ARE statistically significant in nearly any permutation and at that time a broader approach of a source exclusion might be merited. Be aware of the swaths of statistical negation that accompany large scale bans or even small house rules.
- Listen to the Ocean – The statistical robustness of a complex system like the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game means that there are a lot of numbers to drown out the noise of a single mechanic. A plethora of options grants you a wealth of new stories and rules to react to. Tired of caster dominated games? Run a game with magic-use being outlawed. Sick of people always playing humans? Redesign the racial demographics of your world to advantage other races.
- A Drop in Sea – If you find the trillions upon trillions of combinations of monsters, rules, spells and classes can’t manage a disruptive mechanic. Remove it. There are still a crushing amount of possibilities out there and the player should be able to move on to another that is fun for them. If they can’t or another disruption occurs, the problem is probably the player not the rules.
Don’t fear the Ocean of Awesome that is the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game’s enormous bevy of possible heroes, stories and conflicts. Dive in with a fervor and find the options that energize the heroes within those at your table.