RPG Rant: I Am a Selfish Designer

Sometimes, I really miss Pathfinder. Now, don’t get me wrong. I love Pathfinder just as much as I used to, and some distance from it has really softened the edges of the system a bit (I even have a kind of appreciation for the glut of classes it currently has). But 5e has become my game of choice, and I genuinely love almost everything it has to offer. It’s a much more streamlined system that plays like a beautiful merger between the Old and New schools of game design. Monsters have never been easier to build, the magic item system allows you to maintain elegance and mystery in your items, and the staged class design makes designing alternate class features and subclasses much easier and more fun.

But…I guess I just miss designing for Pathfinder. Why? Let me explain.

The primary reason I left Pathfinder behind was the number crunching. Things just got too big and unwieldy. Even by level 10, characters could (and often were) swinging around big +20 attack bonuses and Armor Classes that shot way past the reasonable. Characters were lit up like Christmas trees with all of the “required” magic items. All in all, it was very much the antithesis of 5e’s design.

Whoa. I just realized that I’m writing about Pathfinder like it’s dead. And it is very much not dead.

Anyway, even with all of these problems, I loved designing for Pathfinder. I really did. Gods, when I look at my design backlog, it’s FULL of classes, archetypes, and house rules for Pathfinder. Combat Artist, Arcane Swordsman, Knight, Dark Knight, Dread Knight, Tek-Warrior, Dragon Knight, Duelist, Street Fighter, Divine Agent, Gun-Mage, Guardian of the Green, Engineer, Sentinel. The list goes on and on and on. I simply loved designing player options in Pathfinder.

But why? I actually forced myself to think about this over my month-and-a-half long break. I’m working on revising my Ranger Playtest, you see, and I’ve had trouble finding motivation. I never had that problem when designing for Pathfinder, though. What was it about Pathfinder that really drew me into designing new classes and archetypes? I realize now, of course, that it’s the same thing that draws me into designing monsters and NPCs in 5e.

I’m a REALLY selfish designer.

See, I’m not really a player. Sure, I play in the occasional campaign, run by my friends. But mine is the mind of a Game Master. I love controlling monsters and NPCs, and crafting worlds and stories. Even as a player, my interests have always lay in the various micro-managing subsystems of the game. In Pathfinder, I was the one who wanted to run the kingdom in Kingmaker. I wanted to use the (frankly useless) dungeon building rules from Ultimate Campaign to build a base of operations for our party. My most prominent character among our group, a 3.5 Warlock named Deacon Frost, ran multiple businesses in the capitol city of the campaign and rigged gladiatorial matches so that he always won. I’ve always been more interested in faction play and inhabiting the world than kicking down doors, killing monsters, and taking their stuff. So, why did I love designing player options if I’m such a GM at heart?

Because, in Pathfinder, player options were also GM options. NPCs were designed with the intention that they were effectively players with less gear. Their CRs were designated based on the number of class levels they possessed. Now, granted, the CR system of Pathfinder was pretty screwy when it came to NPCs, but the point was that they were designed so that I, as the GM, got to dip my hand into that ocean of player options. I got to analyze all those archetypes not just so that I could determine whether or not they were appropriate for my players to use, but also so that I could determine if I wanted to use them.

5th edition, for all of its neatness, doesn’t really have that. In fact, GMs in 5th Edition don’t actually have that many toys to play with. Sure, they’re still building worlds and campaigns and stories, but the only real crunchy building blocks they get are the ones that go into the monster design system. And while that is a pretty goddamn big Lego bucket, it’s just one toy. I mean, sure, I COULD add class levels to monsters and NPCs, but the monster/npc design system isn’t built to accommodate that. It’s far more deterministic, and is based upon knowing the approximate power level of a creature BEFORE you start fiddling with class features. And besides that, it’s designed to give the GM a lot more freedom over designing NPCs. Want to design a spellsword NPC? Well, using the Pathfinder method (using 5th edition classes), you’d make a Fighter X/Wizard Y, or you’d make a Fighter (Eldritch Knight) Z. With the 5e method, you just determine what CR you want the spellsword to be, and then you customize the monster to your liking, adding spells and abilities that make it feel like a spellsword. And while I do love this system of monster design (as evidenced by the fact that I keep pumping out monsters and NPCs on this blog), it does leave my class design muscles atrophying. Because those are no longer toys for the GM to play with.

Before I move forward with the conclusion of this rant, I do want to address something. Of course you, as a GM, can use player options for your monsters. Just take a look at the Crime Boss in my Monster Archive for an example. It very obviously takes features from the Mastermind Rogue in the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide. This is not the point, however. I am a designer. I design. And I can come up with all the cool class features in the world and assign them to a limitless number of player options. HOWEVER, if I’m just planning on using them myself, then there’s no reason to assign them to a class or a subclass or whatever. I can just keep them to myself and stick them on monsters as necessary. The point is that I want to design subclasses. I want to design NEW CLASSES. I want to design rangers and arcane swordsmen and knights and dragon shamans and alchemists and engineers. I LOVE designing those things. As a GM, I got to test out my classes and archetypes as NPCs. I just threw them in and tested them against the players. In a system where simply building NPCs out of player options ISN’T HOW YOU BUILD NPC’S, however, that no longer becomes an option. It becomes difficult to build a whole damn class from the ground up when that class will never see the light of day unless one of my players wants to use it.

So, how do I remedy this? How do I slake my thirst for class design while also remaining a selfish GM who only wants to design things for himself?

Simple answer is that I can’t. I have to change. I cannot design player options, remain a GM, and be a selfish dick of a designer at the same time. Way I see it, I have three options:

  1. I Can Become a Player: Simply, no. I suck at being a player. I constantly want to take over the game, focus the spotlight on myself, and micromanage every aspect of the campaign. In the current game I’m playing in, I practically have to sew my mouth shut to keep myself from tossing out unwanted advice to the GM. Sure, I’d get to use all the cool stuff I design, but it wouldn’t be worth it in the end. I am a Game Master, and that’s something I can’t change about myself.
  2. I Can Stop Designing Player Options: If I want to remain a selfish GM, then I can simply keep designing monsters and NPCs and leave it at that. However, I don’t want to do that, either. As I said above, I LOVE designing classes. I love analyzing them and finding out how they tick and putting the pieces together to make something cool and unique. Even when I Fail, I still love the process, and I love revising myself and getting better. It’s so rewarding that I simply can’t stop. Plus, you can only design so many monsters before you need a change of pace.
  3. I Can Stop Being a Selfish Dick: You all knew this was coming. Don’t lie. And yes, of course this is the only reasonable option.

Simply put, I love designing player options too much to stop. I love building classes, subclasses, and feats. I love magic items and spells and subsystems for my players to test. It’s just too much damn fun to give up. So, I won’t. But it means that I’m going to have to start designing for more than just myself. And more than just for GMs. Which is why I’m glad that I have this blog. Because I can toss all the subclasses and feats and such in the world at my players. But even if they do get excited (which they sometimes—hell, often—don’t), they can still only explore one (maybe two) classes and subclasses at a time, and throwing magic items at them just forces me as a GM to compensate.

But here, on this blog? Well, that’s a different story. Here, I have an audience of hundreds, if not thousands. And there are way more players in the world than GMs, so as many monsters as I build, only so many are going to get to play with them. Classes, though? Subclasses and feats and magic items? If I toss up, say, a Dragon Shaman next week, I get the impression that there are going to be a lot of players printing it out and shoving it in their GM’s face for approval come game day.

And, hey, GMs? When they do, approve it. And whether it comes out overpowered, underpowered, or somewhere in the butter zone, share your stories here. Because I can’t be at every table to get a swell of pride and tension every time someone uses a class feature I designed. But hearing about it from you? From the source? THAT, readers, is what this whole design thing is all about.

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