Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Worlds Within Cities and Finding Paths

The new Pathfinder RPG doesn't sound like anything I'd be interested in playing (trying to sell me a new improved version of 3.5 edition D&D is like trying to sell me a new improved version of horse manure) but I'm intrigued in an academic sense to see how well the thing can compete against the big boys. These days most of the RPG industry, as a rule, tries to avoid tackling D&D head-on; you occasionally get the odd Fantasy Heartbreaker cropping up, but a non-D&D fantasy RPG in 2008 generally means something that is trying to do something radically different, like Exalted or REIGN. The era when Role Master or Runequest were valid contenders are over: WotC won that particular war pretty handily. (Although an honourable mention must go to ICE's HARP, which is still fighting its corner and generally knocks the socks off the latest versions of D&D.)

So far, the guys at Paizo really seem to be making a decent fist of it, what with the coup of getting Monte Cook on board, the pretty fantastic-looking production values, and the good idea of releasing "alpha" and "beta" editions for play testing so as to avoid going head-to-head with the release of D&D 4e. The problem for me, apart from the rules, is the setting itself, which has been outlined in a recent blog entry linked to by trollsmyth:

One piece unique to our RPG organized play system is factions. Every faction has its own unique history, culture, style and specialty. Each has its own modus operandi in the ongoing struggle for control of Absalom, and each offers the Pathfinders in their service different boons. Choosing your faction is as important as choosing your character class or race. It helps define your character in the campaign and ties your Pathfinder to one particular nation's destiny.

You see, the idea of factions isn't unique to Paizo's "RPG organized play system". The above paragraph could, with one or two changes of nomenclature, be describing the concept of factions exactly as they exist in the Planescape campaign setting - complete with ongoing struggles for the control of Absalom Sigil and different boons benefits and hindrances. The main difference is that Planescape had a heck of a lot more than five factions, and they were much more interesting and believable, being based broadly on actual philosophies from the real world - from the Epicurean Sensates to the Acosmic Dustmen to the Solipsistic Sign of One. (This is not to mention the other many World Within a City settings which exist throughout the RPG and sci-fi/fantasy canon; Necromunda leaps instantly to mind.)

Even fishier is the fact that Paizo's very acting-guru Monte Cook has his own World Within A City Campaign Setting, Ptolus. This makes Absalom seem not only derivative, but worryingly "influenced" - in the same way that books by inferior authors have tag lines like "in the tradition of Stephen King" - and I don't think it bodes well for the future of Pathfinder.

That said, I'm willing to wait and see what they come up with over the next few days in the way of elaboration.


  1. Note that Planescape was never an organised play campaign, so they do have a case there - although RPGA's Xen'drik Expeditions did have a faction system.

    And more interesting and believable than what, precisely? We don't even know what most of the factions are. The only one that's been released is Andoren, who remind me of United States during the Cold War, except with the idealism of the War of Independence still intact. As far as believability goes, I think it's at least on par with the Xaositects.

    Additionally, Absalom and Sigil (or Ptolus) aren't really similar settings. Absalom is just a really big city. There's a world outside it, and most of the Pathfinder stuff happens in that world. It's Lankhmar, Waterdeep, the City of Greyhawk, Ankh-Morpork - and predates Monte Cook's involvement by months. Besides, he's a rules consultant, not a setting writer.

  2. In Paizo's defense, I think they're crowing about having factions in organized play as opposed to having it just in the setting. So far as I know, there was never a Living Sigil organized play campaign or RPGA campaign.

    My biggest concern is that they're warping their setting to make it fit better their organized play designs. But I really haven't delved too deeply into the setting, beyond what they've released in free PDFs or talked about on their blog.

    - Brian

  3. nitessine: There's a world outside Sigil too; in fact, the whole planes! That's another point of similarity between it and Absalom.

    That said, I think you're right that "believable" was a poorly chosen word - but I stand by "interesting". (I have to say, thought, that the Xaoistects bear more than a passing resemblance to the real-life Accidentalists.)

    Let's wait and see. Paizo may really surprise me with something brilliant over the next few blog entries.

    trollsmyth: That's true, but I still think it's a bit of a stretch to sell the idea of having factions as something unique or new. They'd be better off with something genuinely unusual to hook people's interest and stave off the "It's just another [name big fantasy city of choice here]" accusations.

  4. Yeah, there often is a world outside a city. Going by the first four adventure blurbs they released, we'll be seeing some of it in the campaign. Looks like two will take place in Absalom, one around the Inner Sea, and one in Qadira. Golarion is a big world. There's a lot of room to roam.

    I think the faction system is unusual enough. It's an organized play campaign - you don't want anything too weird. This seems like an effective way of getting the players involved with the setting, which I've noticed was a problem with Living Greyhawk.

    Also, it seems like it has potential for a bit of intra-party intrigue and cloak and dagger, which always makes for interesting gaming.

  5. Yeah, there often is a world outside a city.

    I know that, I was just trying to show that saying "there's a world outside Absalom" isn't going to differentiate it much from Sigil.

    Obviously tastes differ. Pathfinder just seems a bit too vanilla for me; although I can't fault it as a vanilla setting, as a general rule I'm looking for something a bit more "out there".