Playing Mechanical Dress-Up

The demise of Dragon magazine – its print incarnation, at least – left a hole in our hobby that’s never truly been filled.

That doesn’t mean that many other publications haven’t attempted to do so, of course. The biggest one, Pathfinder, is something of a hybrid between Dragon and its sister publication, Dungeon. Despite its technically being a book and not a magazine, Pathfinder (the monthly adventure path, that is) is in many ways the post-3E Dragon.

It’s not the only one, however. Kobold Quarterly makes the rounds every few months or so, having a nice a diverse selection of articles – and like the older issues of Dragon, covers multiple game systems. This is a trait also found in d-Infinity, Dragon Roots (before it unfortunately folded), and any number of OSR-themed periodicals.

Covering multiple systems was also the purview of a small, print-only monthly magazine called Loviatar. I say “was” here because, although the mag does still cover multiple game systems, it’s slightly smaller in its coverage than it used to be, having recently excised all d20/Pathfinder content.

This purge happened in the fourth issue. In the introduction, the editor recounts the story in which he arrived at this decision:

In the past year or two I have tried very hard to wrap my mind around Pathfinder and 4e. I think it’s important to remain flexible and to be open to new ideas, but I have to accept that perhaps I am not the target demographic. To illustrate this, I’d like to share a recent conversation from my game table.

“I want my Fighter to take a level of Bard.”

“Cool. Is this a role-play decision? Are you going to be some kind of warrior-poet?”

“Huh? Nah, I need an arcane spellcaster level for a prestige class.”

“Oh. But why Bard?”

“Good skills and access to healing magic.”

“So this is a meta-gaming decision?”

“Uh, yeah!”

What struck me was that of course it was a metagaming decision. Duh! That’s how new games are designed. If you aren’t optimizing and min/maxing you are setting yourself up to fail. Furthermore, you must optimize so that you don’t let down your fellow players, who are relying upon you to select feats, spells and classes that compliment their own.

Needless to say, I found this pretty unappealing. Partially, this was due to the fact that I’d just signed up with issue #3 (and purchased the first two back issues), only to find that the content I’d wanted most was now being cut.

Another reason I frowned at the above reasoning is that I think it over-emphasizes the differences between how “new games” and their older counterparts are designed. While I won’t say that there are no differences between older and newer games (as vague and imprecise as “older” and “newer” are here) – the existence of the Old School Renaissance alone is a testament to it – I don’t think that newer role-playing games are necessarily more meta-game heavy than old school games.

What I would stipulate to is that, in the wake of the d20 System, a lot of RPGs have focused on providing rules-sets that were “comprehensive” in scope. What that means is that they try to give rules that unambiguously define the results of virtually any action that characters can undertake – no rulings on the part of the Game Master are needed (how well these games succeed at making their rules comprehensive tends to vary depending on who you ask).

This is in contrast to old school games, which tended to use the rules to provide a framework that the Game Master could use when making a judgment call. Of course, even this definition of the difference between new school and old school games is fraught with exceptions, and likely to be debated by someone who finds it wanting, but I think it summarizes the “gamer divide” reasonably well.

What bothers me most about the decision that the editor of Loviatar made, however, is that, if it really was based on the quoted exchange between himself and one of his players, then it’s ultimately based on a misunderstanding:

The player’s decision was not meta-gamed.

In-character. Out-of-Character. I’m the Guy with the Plan.

Let’s look back at that exchange between the GM and his player. They’re discussing the next level that the player’s character is going to take. In general, we can break the player’s line of reasoning down into three points:

  1. I want to take levels in X prestige class.
  2. In order to join X prestige class, I need levels (at least one) in an arcane spellcasting class.
  3. My next level will be a level of bard, since it not only casts arcane spells, but also A) offers good skill points/class skills, and B) can cast healing spells.

Now, the player presents these as being meta-game decisions, and the GM receives them that way, it’s true. What I take issue with, however, is that these aren’t truly meta-game issues; that’s just how they’re portrayed. Let’s examine each of those three points again.

In the first point, the player wants to join a prestige class. Now, the game is fairly silent on what exactly it wants prestige classes to be, from an in-game standpoint. As one of my favorite blogs once said:

First, the game never defined what a PrC is. Is is membership in an elite order with special training? Well, maybe. Is it a special skill you picked up? Well, maybe. Is it an inborn talent which you randomly possess? Well, maybe. Any of these could be defended, and it could easily differ by campaign setting. However, all of this got tossed into a blender.

Indeed it did. As such, it’s going out on a limb to say that the prestige class the player wanted to take was necessarily represented by an in-game group or organization. However, odds are the GM could have found some way to represent what it means to take a level in a given prestige class in the context of his campaign.

Whether it was joining a particular college of war-magic to become an eldritch knight or an ancient dragon who can shepherd him along the path of the dragon disciple, there’s room to represent this PrC in the game world, and thus give in-character context to what this player wants his character to do.

The second point deals with what class he’s taking as a means to the aforementioned prestige class. This is also the easiest point to resolve, simply because virtually all of the classes represent what the character does, rather than what they are. This is little more than a shift in focus in the character’s career, and virtually presents itself for an in-game explanation…especially when that explanation is already given as “I want to join [that prestige class’s in-game representation].”

This brings us finally to the third point, the one that notes that bard was the chosen class because of its skills and healing spells. This one is also the most damning to consider, as on its face it’s about little more than the mechanics of building a strong character.

Again, however, the nature of the problem is blunted by considering that these mechanics have in-game representation. Bards, by virtue of what they do as bards, are skilled individuals – this skill is learned, rather than being inherent. It’s distinctly possible that a relatively-unskilled fighter would want to learn to do things like bluff convincingly, present a diplomatic face to people, and sneak about silently. All things that bards learn how to do.

This goes double for magic. While bardic magic is learned in an ad hoc manner, their use of healing spells would be fairly obvious to anyone who knew of bards (something easily done; that’s what downtime and backstories are for).

So, putting all of that together, the player and the GM could very easily have had the following conversation about the same exact set of circumstances:

“I want my Fighter to take a level of Bard.”

“Cool. Is this a role-play decision? Are you going to be some kind of warrior-poet?”

“Not exactly. My character wants to join the Universitae Belli, but they won’t accept anyone without arcane spellcasting ability.”

“Oh. But why Bard?”

“Well, he was pretty impressed with how resourceful that Bard NPC was a few adventures back – that guy could sneak into the king’s treasury, talk the guards into believing he belonged there, and pick all of their pockets clean on the way out! Plus, what soldier wouldn’t want to be able to cast healing spells on himself if things get ugly?”

“So this is a role-play decision?”

“Uh, yeah!”

And just like that, the problem of meta-game versus role-playing has been solved, in role-playing’s favor.

So if the editor of Loviatar is reading this, I look forward to more 3.5/Pathfinder content in future issues.

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One Response to “Playing Mechanical Dress-Up”

  1. christian Says:

    I have been thinking about Pathfinder a bit. I feel that there is still some unfinished work in regards to Pigeon Street, Hargor, and the colorful neighborhood described in Loviatar #1. I can’t guarantee that I’ll get to it, but I have been kicking some ideas around.

    Take care,
    Christian

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