Welcome to our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans, nagging questions, and whatever else we feel like talking about. No matter what the topic, we invite everyone in the comments to tell us: What Are You Playing This Weekend?
This weekend, I’m traveling with a group of friends to a cabin along one of Minnesota’s ubiquitous lakes. We’ll be spending three beautiful days among nature’s splendor holed up inside, playing role-playing games. I couldn’t be happier about it.
I’m involved in two tabletop campaigns: one in Pathfinder, the high-fantasy open-source offshoot of Dungeons & Dragons, and one in Shadowrun, the cyberpunk game of corporate espionage that takes place on a future Earth where magic has reemerged. I’ve been playing Pathfinder with this group for a few years and only recently began participating in Shadowrun. Having role-played with just the Pathfinder style of rules for so long, it’s fun seeing the distinct campaigns that emerge from such different rulesets.
My Pathfinder character is an Ifrit Gunslinger named Llewellyn “Beautiful Lew” Blackhands. He’s an impetuous mix between Roland Deschain of the Dark Tower series and McCabe from McCabe & Mrs. Miller. A magic and bullet-slinging hero, he loves drinking, smoking, and the praise and attention he earns from doing good deeds. He’s more of an archetype than finely drawn character.
Shadowrun encourages more granular characters. Here, I play Chessick Allens-Whitehall, a trust fund journalist-hacker who resents the aristocratic family that ostracizes him but still accepts and enjoys the quality of life his family’s money provides. He’s terrible in a fight, always freezing up the moment violence begins. Part of this elaborately constructed persona is thanks to the game’s character creation process that lets you pick out your flaws in exchange for bonus points. Being able to choose your neuroses, deficiencies, and addictions helps mold an understanding of their identity. As Tolstoy writes at the beginning of Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” My resentful blogger who doesn’t understand that revenge compels his anti-royalty muckraking is very different from his Colombian orc mercenary companion who, newly infected as a ghoul, must attempt to justify his craving for human flesh with his deeply held Catholic belief in transubstantiation.
The scope of our adventures differs, too. In Pathfinder, we meet with a woman presenting herself as a healer and demigod. Only one person in our group had the ability to see her as she truly was, and instead of a beautiful, imperious priestess, he saw a withered crone sitting amid a pile of vermin bones and shit, suckling a bloated weasel as though it were her child. Our encounter with this manipulative witch culminated with a white dragon and his cult of yeti zealots attacking all of us in an apocalyptic free-for-all. I love the unhinged fairy tale weirdness that thrives in a fantasy setting like Pathfinder. It’s conducive to telling big stories—stories about Illusions and betrayals and a wizard king’s heart hidden in a goose egg behind the sky so death can never find him. It’s rococo and absurd and decadent.
Meanwhile in Shadowrun, we took a job to plant a corporate spy on an army base. To get in, we had to disguise our crime van as one from an appliance delivery company. We successfully placed our spy, but since we’d be unable to leave the base without record of making our slated delivery, we had to stop elsewhere to install a dryer before we could escape. Fortunately, I succeeded my mechanics check. Ares Corporation may now have to contend with massive information breach, but they won’t have to suffer damp trousers. Missions in Shadowrun tend to be smaller and more precise, kind of like the characters themselves. They aren’t larger than life heroes. They’re people with jobs.
Role-playing game settings are always malleable and accommodate diverse playstyles, but I enjoy the contrast between the bigger, mythological quality of Pathfinder and the smaller, detail-oriented adventures in Shadowrun. So I ask you, fellow Gameologicons, what role-playing systems do you play, and what do you enjoy about them?