The Group Is the Thing

(Which I wrote for Game Geek 13)

I remember when the 3.0 version of the d20 System hit the streets. I had been RPGing since the late 70s, and had only reluctantly moved from 1E to 2E circa 1990. Even then, I only made the change because the group of gamers that took me in when I was transferred to Hawaii was already playing 2E. For me, a good group of gamers was more important than the system. After leaving the military, I returned to Houston and picked up gaming with old friends who’d not left town. By this time, they’d all moved to 2E as well, so that’s what we kept playing.

I kept up with the Internet buzz about 3E. Not much of what I read seemed to merit investing time and money in the new system. For example, one of the supposed major improvements was replacing THAC0 with BAB. This really isn’t an improvement, however; it’s more like clever sleight of hand. BAB is just THAC0 with the math changed from subtraction to addition. I’d been using THAC0 as BAB since the mid 80s while playing 1E at Fort Bragg. More importantly, no one in my gaming group seemed interested in 3E, so why bother? The group, after all, is the thing; the game is secondary.

Then Fred decided to check out 3E. He bought the PH and fell in love. We were close to finishing up a 2E campaign, and Fred announced he wanted to run 3E. He insisted we’d all love it as much as he did. So, we made up PCs and went adventuring in a certain sunless citadel. We had fun, not really because 3E represented such a major improvement in game design, but rather because we were still that same group of friends gaming together just like we’d been doing since the late 70s.

That original gaming group is gone. In fact, I’m the only one left. Fred passed away. Others moved. The fundamental rule for me, however, hasn’t changed: The group is what’s important. I’d rather play a bad game system with people I like than a great game system with people I don’t care for.

I still try to keep up with gaming news. My reaction to 4E mirrors my initial reaction to 3E: Why bother? No one in my current group plays 4E, nor do they express any desire to. 3E’s flaws aren’t what persuaded me to eventually make the move to Pathfinder. It stands to reason those same flaws aren’t going to push me toward 4E either. After all, a game system’s flaws tend to be overwhelmingly matters of taste rather than matters of fact.

One of Pathfinder‘s widely maligned flaws is that the system did nothing to get rid of the dreaded Christmas Tree Effect. The gist of the CTE is that as PCs advance in level their equipment becomes more important than the PCs’ respective character classes. CTE critics often make three related claims:

(1) Without “level appropriate” equipment, encounters become too difficult. Attack bonuses, armor classes, saving throws, et cetera, can’t compete with more powerful creatures and effects.

(2) Without “level appropriate” equipment, the game skews even more heavily in favor of spellcasters, especially whichever one the objector feels is already the most powerful.

(3) Because of these first two claims, one cannot run a low-magic game with Pathfinder (or 3.0E or 3.5E) without a major rewrite of the rules.

Whenever I read these sorts of claims, I feel as if I’ve been stuck in some strange alternate universe where the games I play in aren’t what the game is really like. I’ve run low-magic without major rules rewrites. So have, I surmise, others. In the interest of helping gamers who might want to give low-magic gaming a try, here’re my helpful suggestions.

Replace Gear with Action Points

According to the “no low-magic” crowd, the Big Six magic items are hard-wired into the game system. Take them out, and the system falls apart, PCs die like mayflies, dogs and cats cohabitat, et cetera. The Big Six magic items are weapons, armors/shields, rings of protection, cloaks of resistance, amulets of natural armor, and ability-score boosters

The effects of these items can be replaced by Action Points. I use an Action Point system for my current low-magic campaign, and it works like a charm. (This system is described in my Rewarding Roleplaying PDF available at DriveThruRPG and at Here’s a quick and free system.

Each PC gets six Action Points per game session. A single Action Point can be spent as an immediate action even when flat-footed to gain one of the following for the duration of an encounter:

* A +1 enhancement bonus to weapon attack and damage rolls for every four character levels. This enhancement bonus counts as magic for purposes of overcoming DR.
* A +1 enhancement bonus to AC for every four character levels.
* A +1 deflection bonus to AC for every four character levels.
* A +1 resistance bonus to saving throws for every four character levels.
* A +2 enhancement bonus to one ability score for every five character levels.

The minimum bonus is +1, except for ability score bonuses, in which case the minimum bonus is +2. Using this down-and-dirty system, a PC can gain some pretty nice bonuses from round-to-round, gradually increasing in power in desired ways during the course of an encounter.

Also Do What I Do

Remember at the beginning of this article? How it seemed like I was just blathering about why I changed from one system to another? Well, there was a point to that blather, namely this: The group — not the game system — is what’s important.

So many problems with gaming groups could be avoided if people would remember that the highest purpose of any game is to have fun with friends. Everyone in a gaming group should play the game in such a way as to maximize everyone else’s fun. What that fun looks like will vary from group to group, and that’s okay.

How does this relate to low-magic gaming? Simple. If everyone agrees that abandoning most or all of the Big Six, for example, will be fun, and that the group will work together to make the game work, what more is needed? This is true no matter what the game system or style of play.

January 15th, 2011  in RPG No Comments »

Leave a Reply