Monday, October 20, 2014

Playing the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game, Again

    Last year my friend Aaron got the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game, and for the last few months since the next boxed set, Skulls and Shackles, came out I have been bugging him about buying the new ACG set (it has pirates, and I'll take any excuse to bug him).  Last weekend we played the original and I realized something - the more I play the Pathfinder card game the less I like it.
    I think I can actually trace the source of my dislike, something I don't think I did a great job of explaining in my last -post a year ago, so let me revisit the topic again (just for the heck of it).

    First off, last year I played two games of the ACG with my friend.  We were living in different cities at the time, so that was all we managed to play.  Since then he has played a few games with his wife and other friends, but I have not played the game at all.  Last weekend there were 5 of us, two of our friends came out to visit.  They had not played the game either, so there were three new players and two who mostly knew the rules.  We played one of the introductory adventures (Brigadoon) and then the first two parts (Attack on Sandpoint and Local Heroes) of the first Rise of the Runelords adventures (Burnt Offerings).  So while I more than doubled my previous play-time, I will admit up front that I have not played the game enough to feel like I have mastered it - which is something I'll come back to later.  While it was a very long session, I think at least 4 hours but it ended a very long day and weekend so I'm not sure, and I was getting tired and grouchy (which go hand in hand with me), overall we had fun.  Mostly.  More than not at least. (though it did fail to be sufficiently engaging to pull one friend away from her tumblr posting)  The last time I played I was the Bard, and I stuck with that choice this time, since it seemed to work out and I was gun shy after my favorite class, Wizard, seemed to suck badly in our playtesting last year.  I still think the Bard is an okay class.  I kind of described how the game played in a previous post, see there if you want an overview, in this post I'm just going to highlight a few parts of the rules and gameplay.

    So after playing it again, what can I add to my last post?  Well, just that I know exactly why I don't like this game, and I like it less every time I play it.  I touched on it (in a way) in my last post, but playing again drove it home.  And it is simply that I hate disassociated mechanics.  Sadly then, the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game is pretty much a giant collection of disassociated mechanics.
    What do I mean by disassociated mechanics?  Well, the term is not mine, I'm using it from an excellent post over at The Alexandrian that you can find here.  The article is great, read it, but I'll summarize.  In a nutshell, if a decision that the player has to make is also one that the character has to make, then a mechanic (or rule) is associated.  If the player and character are thinking in different ways about a mechanic/rule, then it is disassociated.  For example, a wizard is facing a horde of goblins and has to decide weather or not to cast a fireball spell.  This is associated, in that both the player and the character are weighing the same factors into this decision.  Both the player and character know that a spell can only be cast once per day, and that while it may get rid of this challenge, there may be other challenges to come before the new day.  Contrast this with 1/day abilities, like a Paladin's "Smite Evil."  Like a spell, the paladin's ability can only be used once per day (at first level, or a limited number of times per day in general), but the two abilities are not the same.  A spell, by its definition, and as it exists and works in the game world, is magic that is committed to memory, and that burns itself out of memory when used - this process is so fatiguing that the caster then has to get a full night's sleep to be ready to memorize spells again.  Smite evil however, has a totally arbitrary usage restriction.  Nowhere does the game ever explain why a god devoted to smiting evil would only allow its followers to do so once (or however many times) per day.  The paladin as a character has no reason to have to choose to use a limited power, while the wizard has had his restrictions defined and explained.  In both cases the player is making the exact same decisions, about the risk of using a finite resource, but the characters have very different outlooks on the same actions.
    This is one of the things that I do not like about Pathfinder in general, the proliferation of disassociated mechanics like the #/day abilities.  There is no concept of cost, that you only do things a limited number of times because they use up resources of some kind, or of preparation, that some things can only be done after you have laid sufficient groundwork - instead we get a hand-wave, most likely in the name of that chimera "game balance."  Most people don't care, they like the game side of their role-playing game, but I happen to like the role-playing side more (or, even better, the elusive character-playing side, but that's another rant).  This inclination of mine is what makes playing the ACG like listening to hours of non-stop nails on blackboard.  The ACS is full of disassociated things like:

  • You might not be able to start with a weapon, but you can find one in the game.  If you do, you can use it at will.  But when the game is over, you have to throw it away or give it to someone else.  Why?  Because.
  • After casting a spell, if you are an arcane or divine caster, you have to make a recharge roll.  Normally after casting a spell you discard it, but if you make the recharge roll then you can instead put it on the bottom of your character deck, and maybe use it again.  So not all spells are lost and not all spells are recharged.  Why?  Because.
  • Speaking of your character deck, it is considered to be your hit points.  That means that every spell you know, piece of armor and weapons you use, equipment you are carrying and henchmen you have hired all make you more healthy.  And conversely, every spell you cast (and have to discard) or item you lose or henchman you send off on an errand brings you closer to death.  Why?  Because.
  • Staying together is a staple of adventuring, and a good general concept.  When different people work together they can accomplish wonders - just look at society itself for proof of this concept.  But in the ACG only a few classes have an ability that can be used to help another player.  And challenges have to be fought by only one person.  Thus, having an ally who is not a specific class is not helpful at all.  Why?  Because.
  • Speaking of helping each other, each character has some number of "blessing" cards, which represent the favor of the gods.  You spend a blessing to double your base die roll, making it possible to succeed at normally impossible tasks.  You can also spend one on another character's roll, even if that character is at a different location and thus your character would logically have no idea that they even needed any sort of aid.  Why?  Because.  And why can't any character at the same location as another add a die into a conflict to represent teamwork?  Because.
  • The goal of a session is to explore locations to find the main villain and defeat said villain.  However, even if you defeat the villain in combat, the villain instead automatically runs away to another location that has not been "closed" in advance.  Why?  This one I really have a hard time with - if our fighter just slid 3 feet of steel between the ribs of the bandit leader how exactly does he manage to walk away, whistling jaunty tune, and not suffer any penalties at all?
  • While you have a 15 card character deck that represents your life, you have a hand (of usually 5 or 6 cards) that represent the equipment/allies/blessings/spells that you can use.  Why?  Do I have so many pairs of pants that I can't remember which one I left my heavy crossbow in?  Do all my allies play a constant game of hide and go seek with me while we are fighting for our lives?  Since I am watched by the gods, as evidenced by my blessing cards, do they have a hard time keeping track of all us adventurers and so only glance any single individual's way intermittently?  Why?  Because.

    I could go on for pages and pages, but for the sake of your boredom and my blood pressure I won't.  Instead I want to make another point.  Some will not doubt, and have been for the entirety of this post, comment that the title of the game is the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game, not Role-Playing Game, and thus one should expect all mechanics to only be those that pertain to cards in general.  Which is a perfectly valid point.  And that's also the part of this game that just annoys the hell out of me and makes me hate Paizo (creators of Pathfinder).  While the title may say "cards" all the art and terminology and some of the mechanics are taken from the "role-playing" game - which makes the ACG confusing as hell.  It looks like an RPG, it walks kinda like an RPG, and then quacks like a CCG (collectable card game); making it a rather duckbill platypus Frankenstein abomination with the worst aspects of both.  Descent and Runebound have both shown and proven that RPG mechanics can be adapted to board games, which also use cards (and converting the board pieces to cards is fairly trivial).  Hell, even the old Call of Cuthulu CCG ("Mythos" I think it was called) had very definite RPG-like mechanics with its quest cards that required the player to play a certain order of cards in locations and challenges to follow a storyline. (though I admit that example is dating myself, and a lot of my readers may not be familiar with that now sadly out-of-print CCG from the early 90s)  My point is that if you are going to create a card game in a role-playing game universe I would think that you would borrow more from the RPG side, while the ACG takes most of its lead from the CCG industry.

    The design principles behind the ACG just do not work for me.  I think Pathfinder itself needs some overhaul to be a better RPG and embrace the character side more, but the ACG does not care about any of that, it is just a game about pushing around cards and rolling dice.  "Character," quite rightly, appears nowhere in the title.  Which makes it a game that I just cannot enjoy.  I am an RPG guy, I can play a CCG but they are not what make me happy to play.  And despite the RPG trappings, the ACG is a totally different animal.  This is not to say that there is anything wrong with the game, it is exactly what its designers intended it to be - but I do wish they had created it in its own universe instead of using the RPG trappings in a, frankly, misleading way.  I am disappointed that this will be one of Paizo's products I can't have fun with (and I'll stop bothering my friend about pirates, I'll just have to bother him about something else).  And for those of you who are considering playing it but have not done so yet I say this: which side means the most to you?  Do you really want a game with character and role-playing elements or are you just happy with some rules, some good artwork, and a few dice?  If you are not as crazy as I am, then I'm sure you will have a good time with this game.  Personally, I'd rather play Munchkin or the previously mentioned Runebound and Descent.

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