This game has lasted for a while now – at least two and a half-year, with considerable breaks due to the pandemic situation, but still probably 60 sessions or more, overall. If you're unfortunate enough to have read my rants on Discord, you may know I do not consider it a particularly successfull experience.
In part, that's due to the rules not clicking with us. It's a type of ruleset we're very familiar with, and D&D4E (arguably an even more structured and "complicated" game) is still possibly the table's favourite, but there's a lot of things in PF 2nd edition that don't work for us. This is not, however, the topic at hand – in fact I'm not very interesting in discussing PF2 per se, even if I may cite how some mechanics didn't help with certain problems. It's probably a fine game, just not what we needed right now.
The main problem with this game is the GM; his are the biggest responsabilities in what didn't work in these 2 years (and in what I'll describe in the post). It's a mix of well known and possibly toxic behaviours that will condemn any game to mediocrity, and it's a too long list to go over each individual topic. From trying to fight the ruleset and use it to do something it's clearly not meant to, to falling victim of the open ended structure of preparation and thus not having anything solid prepared for the next step but also being unable to actually use what players were giving to propel the situation in the places where it could have gone, to simply losing enthusiasm and being unable to confront the group about it when faced with their insistence to go on.
Because the game is still going on, and while it's not going to go on for long (we're in the "last scenario", so to speak, no matter what – the players either win or die, at this point, or perhaps they could abadon the situation completely which would have the same effect), it's remarkable that it lived for so long.
And I would even say that the vast majority of the sessions proceeded and ended with laughter, entertaining events and memorable scenes. If you have to take something positive away from this game, it's the fact that it's the perfect evidence that the GM is just another player and it's the group that provides the fun: engaged players will create healthy dynamics and powerful content even if the GM isn't up to speed. I often showed up at game night thinking "Oh please, let this be over soon" and 4 hours later we were still going strong and having fun.
So, what is this post about? After the last session, I was confronted with some very casual but very passive aggressive criticism. And while I've received a lot of well deserved criticism from the players in this game, in this case it felt unearned, or at least, surprising. I'll point out that I did some self reflection and I confronted my friend about it. The player is not the issue, he's not a bad or evil player, he's not being unreasonable and he's not trying to be a problem. But he did say that, and he said it for a reason, so I'm reflecting on the reason, here.
I will need to briefly go over what the game is about.
The initial situation was pretty solid: a group of characters arriving in a border town in what is the equivalent of Scandinavia in Pathfinder lore, each with their good reason. There's the ranger looking for revenge on barbaric tribes that are rumored to infest the woods of the region, there's a disgraced cleric of the goddess of vengeace that immediately finds her hands full in the very violent and injust society she encounters, there's the nephew of the dignitary who was here on a diplomatic mission and got missing, there's a pirate pretending to be a master of coin looking for work (and loot), there's a dwarf looking to start a new life away from his guilt.
I prepared a small region full of NPCs and explorable events – something sinister going on in the woods, isolated communities that stopped sending food and tributes, a giant abandoned fortress that the aforementioned dignitary disappeared in, a town with lots of political instability and racist law enforcers, trade routes to re-estabilish and plenty of potential work for adventurers.
This part of the game worked great – people had a lot of fun, they explored the various situations and resolved or progressed them in unexpected and engagin ways, and for many months we had this very satisfying dynamic of them settling into the colony while uncovering misteries and punching monsters in the face.
At some point however they clearly "outgrew" their environment, both in level and in terms of content. Storylines were closed, people were saved, bad rulers were overthrown or controlled, and in short their general situation stabilized. They had taken over the community, they made it safe and they substantially ruled it.
The game could have ended there (with a vague description of how the community would prosper or not under their rule), but players wanted to do more with the characters. I could have let them set in and kept throwing problems at them, but it didn't feel like a situation with any life in it.
Every hanging thread or unsolved mistery led them away, and so they started the proverbial journey, pursuing the dignitary who clearly had lost his mind and was up to no good.
What followed is, well, too long and too uninteresting to discuss, but let's say they traveled and fought, made friends and some enemies, and all you'd expect from the traditional, very driven type of game that you could see at most AD&D 2nd ed table circa 1995-2000. They've reached very high levels (currently 15th, which makes them capable of absolutely superhuman feats). Trying to condense things, their current sketch is this: they've forged an alliance with the most powerful jarls of the region (Linnorm-kings, technically, but it's the same stuff), expecially the two queens that rule the most powerful city states, and they've discovered that the dignitary is secretly working with a nearby country (faux-Russia) that has been in a state of cold war with the Linnorm-kings for centuries, in order to provoke a new conflict that would be disasterous for their country. After a lot of behind-enemy-lines espionage, they make a big scene in a large town in faux-Russia and are forced to run and hide in the woods.
Now, looking behind the GM's screen… I actually had no big plan or story. Kind of my fault here, because it was clear the majority of the group wanted or expected something being going on behind all the misteries, and that's one of the things that got me astray. For example, I wanted to do "strange people in the woods worship ancient, weird deities" and I let myself be pressured into making it "strange people in the woods worship ancient, weird deities with a plan". Mark this point because I feel it's going to be relevant.
So what was the big story? I had picked up some modules, old AD&D stuff, and a lot of Paizo's own lore. Faux Russia is ruled by the Baba Yaga, who in Pathfinder lore actually comes from planet Earth, and travels dimensions (including Goliaron, the PF "setting"). She brought Anastasia Romanov (yeah, that one) on Golarion to act as tsarina. She rules the country through her.
I pick up pieces and put together some story that may lead to a climax. The Baba Yaga is dying: she's as powerful as a god, but she comes from a world where she's mortal, and in this cosmology, you can't escape that (the AD&D module "Baba Yaga's Hut" was the biggest inspiration for this). Death is stalking her, and in this cosmology, for each individual powerful enough, one specific personification of death is created. In the old module, she plans to trap her Death in her hut. But given we didn't want to do that much dungeon crawling and honestly the players needed some closure to the story, I decided that the dignitary (who they had experienced being extremely hungry on knowledge and dark secrets) had been seduced by her and forced into a scam where she trapped her Death inside him. Now she has a very powerful (he has levels, hey! It's D&D) individual that is very hard to kill, and Death only takes over if he dies enough times, so she's gained some time. But he's died quite a few times since the game started, a few times at the hand of the players, and so the Baba Yaga decides they may work together since her time is running out again.
She contacts the players (I envisoned her as a "patron" of sorts, that they may refuse or accept as an ally, not something they would fight) and they strike some sort of deal that should please everyone: they kill the dignitary, they put his head in a magical box, she calls off the war.
There's a few complications, of course: the ranger (who comes from faux-Russia) hates her but he's willing to take the deal because it's good for his people too, while others start developing mixed feeling about it. Anastasia is far from a villain, and she knows how to kill the Baba for good, so she could be a potential ally, but the players don't seem interested in exploring this. I do warn them that the Baba always keeps her deals and she promised the tribal-people-in-the-woods (see, everything connects! Jeez) she would help them overthrow the (in their perspective) evil Linnorm Kings. She worked through her agents to unite the Linnorm-King tribes so that they would feel strong enough to attack faux-Russia… and die, because faux-Russia has prepared for war in natural and unnatural ways. This way she honors both deals: her country won't attack, but war will still happen and the Linnorm-Kings will fall.
Still awake? So the players get back home and find a war council going. Notice that the town they're in currently has the dignitary "trapped" in – the players had chasen him to its borders, he's barely rational or human looking at this point, he gets attacked, the local queen kills him with her magic sword, then notices he keeps coming back. So she impales him in the sword, that can invoke and channel lighting. Every now and then lighting strikes, the guy is burned to a crisp, everyone is happy. Death too, because the process of her taking over is massively accellarated, if at some point someone will pluck the sword away.
Ok, we got to the point finally. Sorry for all the details, but since a lot of what's going on involves the process of getting in this situation, I wanted to be very clear about how much the players have decided and how much I've steered them towards certain events. Up to this point, we all agreed that players had maintained a strong (perhaps even too strong) control over their destiny, barring some hard framing on some situation on my part.
Let's talk rules for a second: player characters in PF2 are ridicolously powerful. In D&D-like games, we tend to approach this concept diegetically – people know that "adventurers" are powerful one-man-armies, and the world reacts accordingly. In PF2 however it has often felt difficult to align the in-world perception of the character's stature with how the rules behaved. Specialized characters can perform level-appropriate tasks with immense ease. And the players acting as a group can defeat enemies that – following the combat encounter building guidelines detailed in the Gamemastering chapter – are supposed to be impossible. At level 14 the players defeated a legendary level 19 threat without even risking their lives. I'm being extremely scarce with magical rewards, and still the sheer power of some of the spells and abilities make them capable of taking down almost anything. The level 19 encounter is a good example of how this plays out: the target is almost impossible to hit, almost never will fail a saving throw, and yet through their own abilities, healing and protecting, granted hits and spells without saves the players can simply keep going until whatever is thrown at them falls. The implication here is that if their resources were somehow exausted, then the hard, level appropriate enemies would be a challenge.
This is what I meant when I said I was using the game to do something it's not meant to: our playstyle doesn't really adapt well to the idea of an "adventuring workday". We like our combats, but we don't like spending 4 weeks exploring a dungeon; the biggest problem with the idea of running 6-7 encounters in a single in-world day is that when those encounters last 45 minutes each if you're lucky, you're looking at several weeks of story and character development going nowhere. We tried to do it "straight" and we gave up when we realized we were trying to figure out which spells were cast 3 weeks of real world time earlier.
The practical effect is that players are used to win and win hard. Often situations described as dangerous or desperate turned out pretty well for them, and they've learned that going for violence always pays. The game is quite brutal in how it permits the GM to contrast this situation: I can could have kept killing the cleric over and over, devising situations that particularly affect her or ways to wear down the 230 hp barbarian or monsters that will fly out of the way of the incredibly accurate fighter… and frankly no, that's bullshit. Playing against the players isn't something I'm interested in doing. But still we ended up being stuck between a rock and a hard place: the game failed to provide the challenges that would keep the diegetical discourse coherent, and I failed to turn into the evil GM mastermind that creates situations that are meant to defuse what the players worked to be good at.
So what happened in the last session? The players get to town, notice the charred corpse of the dignitary and get an update on the situation, and get a seat in the war council. They notice everyone is there, and there's a giant army outside town, something they did try to rally before and failed. The situation is somewhat suspicious but they go on with the council, and their agendas fall apart. Some want war, because they feel they could win, others want to honor the deal with the Baba Yaga, some want to stop the war entirely.
Here we get to the player who later complained. His character is a sorcerer, and kind of a necromancer. He's got a devil-may-care attitude for most of the game (at some point he would leave cursed coins around, letting Ghoul Fever spread in villages just for his morbid curiosity and spite) and his goal right now had clearly become "not letting the Baba Yaga win". So he gave me a solid explanation of how he would stand up in the council and terrorize everyone with an Intimidate check, explaining what he saw behind enemy lines and how everyone would die in Irrisen.
As I said, the game gives specialists huge bonuses and a few moments laters I'm left with him having rolled a 38 (something the game describes as "legendary" or to a similar effect) and here I find myself stuck, because again I realize the game would have expected me to either determine and stipulate effects before the roll, or just make up some bullshit after. There's no real guidelines except "if something is pretty hard, at this level, you need to beat this number". Which is nice and dandy, but as I said, "really hard", if you did a marginal effort to be good at it, means "trivial". This is a game where the guy who knows how to climb rolls +26, and the guy who doesn't +4. So for him an hardly exceptional roll was still a legendary result, and I had to decide on the spot if he managed to stop a war from happening or not, by rolling 11 on a die on the whim of the moment. I tried to honor the roll, I figured most people except the highest level generals would simply be terrified, then I rolled for the two highest level characters in the war council (queen Astrid and queen Thyra). The first beated the player in a contested roll, the second failed. I felt a bit exausted (we were at about 2.5 hours of play at this point) but I figured some infighting would happen, queen Astrid would notice the scared faces and lock everyone in the room to prevent the fear from spreading and undermining the morale of the troops, and Thyra would begin doubting the mission.
In my head a long chain of events had started, but the player's perception was that he got a Legendary success, and failed.
A few moments later, the players are picking up their things after a night of rest, and here I frame a scene to let the discussions they had get to a point and decision: as they prepare the spot a conspicuous servant that they immediately recognize as the Baba Yaga. They question her on breaking her word, she explains her "trick", but she says they can still honor their deal (the dignitary/Death is just a few steps away) and she will grant them what was agreed upon – they'll get to take their people to safety, the ranger will become a political figure in Irrisen, in short they may serve her and prosper.
The group is obviously thorn, but the prevailing attitude is "wait and see", and possibly confront her later, from within her borders, when the necromancer announces he's foundt a spell that forbids anyone from teleporting away within 120 ft. He tells everyone he has a plan, that they should pick the sword and let Death come back for the Baba Yaga…. and decides to hide and cast the spell. He decides to hide after I explain she could probably counterspell him, but the result is that the situation precipitates fast, and combat ensues.
We stopped there because there were a load of things to factor in (including I didn't prepare a stat block for the witch), but immediately most of the group lamented that his decision was rushed and they would probably die there. At which point he commented on how she was too powerful anyways, and I had put them in a no escape situation, and this was the only way he could affect the story and not just go along with it.
We discussed this later, and I got to understand his frustration and where he was coming from. What struck me is how entrenched he was in the general idea that playing D&D (PF is D&D, anyway) fundamentally implied that players would always have the option of steering the situation with a well placed roll or if all else failed, by punching whatever they were facing in the face, because whatever they were faced with would either be "numerically compatible" with them or some sort of GM-induced abuse. "You forced us to face something we can't beat", was the underlying statement. He felt any choice he would take was meaningless because whatever he did… her numbers were bigger. And if you can't beat it, you're not controlling your story. I know it may feel I'm mischaracterizing a player's reaction and I want to be clear here: I don't think he did anything wrong. I can't agree with how he feels, but I understand where he comes from, and it's gotten me thinking.
We recently discussed the notion of failure, of accepting bad rolls or generally things not going your way. This is a somewhat different angle – how fair is it for a GM to introduce content in game that the players can't influence with their rolls, be it undefeatable opponents or unchangeable situations (like a war, at large)? Why didn't he feel like he could play within the restraints I had imposed them – with the added consideration that going against the god-like NPC was his own thought-ought and wanted decision?