As our Pathfinder game progressed through 18 months, 75+ adventures, and nearly 20 levels of play it was increasingly apparent that we had captured lightning in a bottle. Despite the pressures of adulthood, careers, significant others and children in some ways our play group of nearly two decades had just started to hit its stride. Thanks to our DM, the world was teeming with possibility, fantastically developed, and linked together with a metaplot that we had been organically and naturally unraveling since day one. Meanwhile, each player had reached a synthesis of Pathfinder-style combat potency and crafting believable personalities for well-rounded three dimensional play. There was only one problem: Pathfinder itself.
As players options increased, analysis paralysis set in. Our DM found his painstakingly and time-consuming efforts to challenge us increasingly bypassed, ignored, or worked around. Based on my own enthusiasm and work on Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, I demoed it for everyone, with the same setting and player characters. Ultimately, this demo combined with the aforesaid problems and our love for the story to prompt us to switch our game system from Pathfinder to Marvel Heroic Roleplaying. This transition exposed how a game system transformed the tone of the game, aided in codifying the emergent plot elements typical to epic play, and caused struggles in rediscovering each character’s identity. (Disclaimer before we go too far: I freelance for Margaret Weis Productions for upcoming Marvel products, as do several other CH writers.)
Setting the Tone
As our power increased in Pathfinder, the nature of our power was highly codified. Moreover, much of the power was represented by better attack bonuses, defenses, and damage output. Our adventures stakes increased, but our characters grew more calcified. Specialization was virtually required to tackle difficult challenges, and so our Bard had to say everything while sometimes only the Fighter could hope to legitimately hit foes. Even within those areas of expertise, the system codified and set the limits of what could be done. Even though we were virtually gods compared to the poor common plebeians of the world, we were only able to behave that way in our niche.
All that changed with the switch. After some initial hiccups, both the Watcher and I made sure to emphasize the narrative nature of the game, and the strength of Plot Points. Our fighter could, if described properly, leverage his strength to intimidate people. The roles within the party melted away and the characters could act when their internal motivations prompted them to.
Making the Plot Crunchy
In Pathfinder, each character had a henchmen and a number of characters led organizations, held political office, and had clout across the world. With the exception of henchmen, much of the in-game benefit for these accomplishments were ephemeral. A character’s mercenary band was all well and good, but what good did a few platoons of first level characters do for a high level adventurer? Not much.
With mobs of troops, friendly battlecruisers that can call down bombardments or even end scenes, and troupe style play, the heroes are suddenly clamoring to spend XP to codify what was essentially window-dressing in Pathfinder. The sprawling set of ties, resources, and allegiances that dozens of Pathfinder adventures bring seems to come together quite nicely in the form of (heavily modified) Marvel rules.
Rediscovering Your Role
Pathfinder is a system that codifies in great detail what a character can do. Spellcasters had more options, but those options had limits, restrictions, precise areas of effect and the typical D&D faire. While the simpler builds took 1 minute turns (oftentimes finding themselves with less to do because of the insanity of 20-23rd level monsters) our poor sorceress was constantly frazzled trying to figure which of her seventy spells to cast, because none of them seemed just right.
Once converted to MHR, that problem did not go away quite as I expected. We were all playing characters with hundreds of hours of play history. As such, players worked very hard to find the new “Marvel Way” of representing what their characters did. What’s more, is that players were hesitant to step outside their previously imposed bounds. Our sorceress in particular sought to keep her character’s actions true to her Pathfinder roots, but eventually that urge diminished. Seeing the Fighter use his flying armor to smash at breakneck speeds into a Galactus-lookalike while the Bard laid down an impressive Spirit Bomb worthy level of covering fire demonstrated just how “big” the system could be. In short, the players are starting to embrace the comic book roots of things, that if you can justify with a mildly straight face based on your characters powers… why not give it a shot.
Ultimately, the game has transformed in a positive way. The simulationist combats are gone, and although they had greater strategic potential, the feast or famine nature of Epic Pathfinder had turned them into glum churning affairs. As players begin to realize that their ability to effect the gameworld is almost boundless, the characters are emerging from the shackles of the Pathfinder’s Rules as Written and finding that they really can change the scope of the whole game world. For me, that is the essence of epic play. The joy of early adventures was cleverly using resources to get NPCs to behave in unintended ways, set enemy patrols against one another, and winning a fight through some means that shouldn’t work. Our frankenstein monster, Pathfinder Epic Roleplaying, promises to do just that for us as we shape our gameworld in bigger and badder ways.